The U.S. government’s reliance on secret surveillance warrants dropped to the lowest level on record in 2019, amid intense scrutiny of the FBI’s infamous investigation of the Trump campaign.
The secret federal surveillance court approved 907 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) applications last year, targeting 1,059 individuals or entities, according to an annual transparency report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on April 30. The figures are the lowest since the agency began reporting on the statistics in 2013.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General concluded in 2019 that FISA applications to surveil Trump campaign associate Carter Page contained 17 significant errors. The surveillance of Page, in addition to revelations of rampant anti-Trump bias among top officials involved in the probe of the Trump campaign, has drawn intense criticism.
In early April, the lead judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which approves FISA warrant applications, issued a scathing order in response to a DOJ watchdog audit that found issues with each of the 29 FISA applications examined.
The applications that were examined spanned a period of five years.
The FBI has already implemented wide-ranging reforms of its FISA practices in response to the FISC’s prior orders and the DOJ IG report. It’s unclear whether the higher standards and renewed attention to detail have contributed to the significant reduction in the number of FISA warrants.
The bureau didn’t respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.
In explaining the latest numbers, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stated that “the statistics fluctuate from year to year for a variety of reasons.
“These include changes in operational priorities, world events, technical capabilities, target behavior, the dynamics of the ever-changing telecommunications sector, and the use of technology to automate the delivery of marketing and other communications,” the report (pdf) stated.
“These reasons often cannot be explored in detail in an unclassified setting without divulging information necessary to protect national security. Moreover, there may be no relationship between a decrease in the use of one authority and an increase in another.”
The secret court issued the highest number of traditional FISA orders in 2013, the first year with recorded statistics. A single order can include more than one target. The number of FISA targets peaked in 2018 at 1,833.
Traditional FISA orders include electronic and physical surveillance. A separate FISA section—702—is devoted to information collection on foreign nationals. While the number of traditional targets dropped in 2019, the number of 702 targets grew for the seventh consecutive year to 204,968. Queries of raw 702 that included the name of a U.S. person dropped slightly from 9,637 in 2018 to 9,126 in 2019.
Section 702 collection may sometimes include the communications of U.S. persons. For example, a foreign intelligence officer who is under surveillance may speak with a number of U.S. persons, whose identities are usually masked in such communications. The National Security Agency may unmask the identities upon request. The NSA conducted 10,012 such un-maskings in 2019, down from 16,721 in 2018.
The intelligence community received 7,724 unmasking requests in 2019 and approved 6,845, according to the report.