How Twelve Years of Warning and Six Years of Plodding Reform Finally Forced FBI to Do Minimal FISA Oversight

Earlier this week, the government released the reauthorization package for the 2018 Section 702 certificates of FISA. With the release, they disclosed significant legal fights about the way FBI was doing queries on raw data, what we often call “back door searches.” Those fights are, rightly, being portrayed as Fourth Amendment abuses. But they are, also, the result of the FISA Court finally discovering in 2018, after 11 years, that back door searches work like some of us have been saying they do all along, a discovery that came about because of procedural changes in the interim.

As such, I think this is wrong to consider “FISA abuse” (and I say that as someone who was very likely personally affected by the practices in question). It was, instead, a case where the court discovered that FBI using 702 as it had been permitted to use it by FISC was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

As such, this package reflects a number of things:

  • A condemnation of how the government has been using 702 (and its predecessor PAA) for 12 years
  • A (partial — but thus far by far the most significant one) success of the new oversight mechanisms put in place post-Snowden
  • An opportunity to reform FISA — and FBI — more systematically

This post will explain what happened from a FISA standpoint. A follow-up post will explain why this should lead to questions about FBI practices more generally.

The background

This opinion came about because every year the government must obtain new certificates for its 702 collection, the collection “targeted” at foreigners overseas that is, nevertheless, designed to collect content on how those foreigners are interacting with Americans. Last we had public data, there were three certificates: counterterrorism, counterproliferation, and “foreign government,” which is a too-broadly scoped counterintelligence function. As part of that yearly process, the government must get FISC approval to any changes to its certificates, which are a package of rules on how they will use Section 702. In addition, the court conducts a general review of all the violations reported over the previous year.

Originally, those certificates included proposed targeting (governing who you can target) and minimization (governing what you can do once you start collecting) procedures; last year was the first year the agencies were required to submit querying procedures governing the way agencies (to include NSA, CIA, National Counterterrorism Center, and FBI) access raw data using US person identifiers. The submission of those new querying procedures are what led to the court’s discovery that FBI’s practices violated the Fourth Amendment.

In the years leading up to the 2018 certification, the following happened:

  • In 2013, Edward Snowden’s leaks made it clear that those of us raising concerns about Section 702 minimization since 2007 were correct
  • In 2014, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (which had become operational for the first time in its existence almost simultaneously with Snowden’s leaks) recommended that CIA and FBI have to explain why they were querying US person content in raw data
  • In 2015, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, the most successful reform of which reflected Congress’ intent that the FISA Court start consulting amicus curiae when considering novel legal questions
  • In 2015, amicus Amy Jeffress (who admitted she didn’t know much about 702 when first consulted) raised questions about how queries were conducted, only to have the court make minimal changes to current practice — in part, by not considering what an FBI assessment was
  • In the 2017 opinion authorizing that year’s 702 package, Rosemary Collyer approved an expansion of back door searches without — as Congress intended — appointing an amicus to help her understand the ways the legal solution the government implemented didn’t do what she believed it did; that brought some (though not nearly enough) attention to whether FISC was fulfilling the intent of Congress on amici
  • In the 2017 Reauthorization (which was actually approved in early 2018), Congress newly required agencies accessing raw data to submit querying procedures along with their targeting and minimization procedures in the annual certification process, effectively codifying the record-keeping suggestion PCLOB had made over two years earlier

When reviewing the reauthorization application submitted in March 2018, Judge James Boasberg considered that new 2017 requirement a novel legal question, so appointed Jonathan Cederbaum and Amy Jeffress, the latter of whom also added John Cella, to the amicus team. By appointing those amici to review the querying procedures, Boasberg operationalized five years of reforms, which led him to discover that practices that had been in place for over a decade violated the Fourth Amendment.

When the agencies submitted their querying procedures in March 2018, all of them except FBI complied with the demand to track and explain the foreign intelligence purpose for US person queries separately. FBI, by contrast, said they already kept records of all their queries, covering both US persons and non-US persons, so they didn’t have to make a change. One justification it offered for not keeping US person-specific records as required by the law is that Congress exempted it from the reporting requirements it imposed on other agencies in 2015, even though FBI admitted that it was supposed to keep queries not just for the public reports from which they argued they were exempted, but also for the periodical reviews that DOJ and ODNI make of its queries for oversight purposes. FBI Director Christopher Wray then submitted a supplemental declaration, offering not to fix the technical limitations they built into their repositories, but arguing that complying with the law via other means would have adverse consequences, such as diverting investigative resources. Amici Cedarbaum and Amy Jeffress challenged that interpretation, and Judge James Boasberg agreed.

The FBI’s querying violations

It didn’t help FBI that in the months leading up to this dispute, FBI had reported six major violations to FISC involving US person queries. While the description of those are heavily redacted, they appear to be:

  • March 24-27, 2017: The querying of 70K facilities “associated with” persons who had access to the FBI’s facilities and systems. FBI General Counsel (then run by Jim Baker, who had had these fights in the past) warned against the query, but FBI did it anyway, though did not access the communications. This was likely either a leak or a counterintelligence investigation and appears to have been discovered in a review of existing Insider Threat queries.
  • December 1, 2017: FBI conducted queries on 6,800 social security numbers.
  • December 7-11, 2017, the same entity at FBI also queried 1,600 queries on certain identifiers, though claimed they didn’t mean to access raw data.
  • February 5 and 23, 2018: FBI did approximately 30 queries of potential sources.
  • February 21, 2018: FBI did 45 queries on people being vetted as sources.
  • Before April 13, 2018: an unspecified FBI unit queried FISA acquired metadata using 57,000 identifiers of people who work in some place.

Note, these queries all took place under Trump, and most of them took place under Trump’s hand-picked FBI Director. Contrary to what some Trump apologists have said about this opinion, it is not about Obama abuse (though it reflects practices that likely occurred under him and George Bush, as well).

These violations made it clear that Congress’ mandate for better record-keeping was merited. Boasberg also used them to prove that existing procedures did not prevent minimization procedure violations because they had not in these instances.

As he was reviewing the violations, Boasberg discovered problems in the oversight of 702 that I had noted before, based off my review of heavily redacted Semiannual Reports (which means they should have been readily apparent to everyone who had direct access to the unredacted reports). For example, Judge Boasberg noted how few of FBI’s queries actually get reviewed during oversight reviews (something I’ve pointed out repeatedly, and which 702 boosters have never acknowledged the public proof of).

As noted above, in 2017 the FBI conducted over three million queries of FISA-acquired information on just one system, [redacted]. See Supplemental FBI Declaration at 6. In contrast, during 2017 NSD conducted oversight of approximately 63,000 queries in [redacted] and 274,000 queries in an FBI system [redacted]. See Gov’t Response at 36.

Personnel from the Office of Intelligence (OI) within the Department of Justice’s National Security Division (NSD) visit about half of the FBI’s field offices for oversight purposes in a given year. Id at 35 & n 42. Moreover OI understandably devotes more resources to offices that use FISA authorities more frequently, so those offices [redacted] are visited annually, id at 35 n. 42, which necessitates that some other offices go for periods of two years or more between oversight visits. The intervals of time between oversight visits at a given location may contribute to lengthy delays in detecting querying violations and reporting them to the FISC. See, e.g., Jan. 18, 2019, Notice [redacted] had been conducting improper queries in a training context since 2011, but the practice was not discovered until 2017).

He also noted that the records on such queries don’t require contemporaneous explanation from the Agent making the query, meaning any review of them will not find problems.

The FBI does not even record whether a query is intended to return foreign-intelligence information or evidence of crime. See July 13, 2018, Proposed Tr. at 14 (DOJ personnel “try to figure out” from FBI query records which queries were run for evidence of crime purposes). DOJ personnel ask the relevant FBI personnel to recall and articulate the bases for selected queries. Sometimes the FBI personnel report they cannot remember. See July 9, 2018, Notice.

Again, I noted this in the past.

In short, as Boasberg was considering Wray’s claim that the FBI didn’t need the record-keeping mandated by Congress, he was discovering that, in fact, FBI needs better oversight of 702 (something that should have been clear to everyone involved, but no one ever listens to my warnings).

FISC rules the querying procedures do not comply with the law or Fourth Amendment

In response to Boasberg’s demand, FBI made several efforts to provide solutions that were not really solutions.

The FBI’s first response to FISC’s objections was to require General Counsel approval before accessing the result of any “bulk” queries like the query that affected 70K people — what it calls “categorical batch queries.”

Queries that are in fact reasonably likely to return foreign-intelligence information are responsive the government’s need to obtain and produce foreign-intelligence information, and ultimately to disseminate such information when warranted. For that reason, queries that comply with the querying standard comport with § 1801 (h), even insofar as they result in the examination of the contents of private communications to or from U.S. persons. On the other hand, queries that lack a sufficient basis are not reasonably related to foreign intelligence needs and any resulting intrusion on U.S. persons’ privacy lacks any justification recognized by§ 1801 (h)(l). Because the FBI procedures, as implemented, have involved a large number of unjustified queries conducted to retrieve information about U.S. persons, they are not reasonably designed, in light of the purpose and technique of Section 702 acquisitions, to minimize the retention and prohibit the dissemination of private U.S. person information.

But Boasberg was unimpressed with that because the people who’d need to consult with counsel would be the most likely not to know they did need to do so.

He also objected to FBI’s attempt to give itself permission to use such queries at the preliminary investigation phase (before then, FBI was doing queries at the assessment stage).

The FBI may open a preliminary investigation with even less of a factual predicate: “on the basis of information or an allegation indicating the existence of a circumstance” described in paragraph a. orb. above. Id. § II.B.4.a.i at 21 (emphasis added). A query using identifiers for persons known to have had contact with any subject of a full or preliminary investigation would not require attorney approval under § IV.A.3, regardless of the factual basis for opening the investigation or how it has progressed since then.

Boasberg’s Fourth Amendment analysis was fairly cautious. Whereas amici pushed for him to treat the queries as separate Fourth Amendment events, on top of the acquisition (which would have had broad ramifications both within FISA practice and outside of it), he instead interpreted the new language in 702 to expand the statutory protection under queries, without finding queries of already collected data a separate Fourth Amendment event.

Similarly, both Boasberg and the amici ultimately didn’t push for a written national security justification in advance of an actual FISA search. Rather, they argued FBI had to formulate such a justification before accessing the query returns (in reality, many of these queries are automated, so it’d be practically impossible to do justifications before the fact).

Boasberg nevertheless required the FBI to at least require foreign intelligence justifications for queries before an FBI employee accessed the results of queries.

The FBI was not happy. Having been told they have to comply with the clear letter of the law, they appealed to the FISA Court of Review, adding apparently new arguments that fulfilling the requirement would not help oversight and that the criminal search requirements were proof that Congress didn’t intend them to comply with the other requirements of the law. Like Boasberg before them, FISCR (in a per curium opinion from the three FISCR judges, José Cabranes, Richard Tallman, and David Sentelle) found that FBI really did need to comply with the clear letter of the law.

The FBI chose not to appeal from there (for reasons that go beyond this dispute, I suspect, as I’ll show in a follow-up). So by sometime in December, they will start tracking their backdoor searches.

FBI tried, but failed, to avoid implementing a tool that will help us learn what we’ve been asking

Here’s the remarkable thing about this. Something like this has been coming for two years, and FBI is only now beginning to comply with the requirement. That’s probably not surprising. Neither the Director of National Intelligence (which treated its intelligence oversight of FBI differently than it did CIA or NSA) nor Congress had demanded that FBI, which can have the most direct impact on someone’s life, adhere to the same standards of oversight that CIA and NSA (and an increasing number of other agencies) do.

Nevertheless, 12 years after this system was first moved under FISA (notably, two key Trump players, White House Associate Counsel John Eisenberg and National Security Division AAG John Demers were involved in the original passage), we’re only now going to start getting real information about the impact on Americans, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. For the first time,

  • We will learn how many queries are done (the FISC opinion revealed that just one FBI system handles 3.1 million queries a year, though that covers both US and non US person queries)
  • We will learn that there are more hits on US persons than previously portrayed, which leads to those US persons to being investigated for national security or — worse — coerced to become national security informants
  • We will learn (even more than we already learned from the two reported queries that this pertained to vetting informants) the degree to which back door searches serve not to find people who are implicated in national security crimes, but instead, people who might be coerced to help the FBI find people who are involved in national security crimes
  • We will learn that the oversight has been inadequate
  • We will finally be able to measure disproportionate impact on Chinese-American, Arab, Iranian, South Asian, and Muslim communities
  • DOJ will be forced to give far more defendants 702 notice

Irrespective of whether back door searches are themselves a Fourth Amendment violation (which we will only now obtain the data to discuss), the other thing this opinion shows is that for twelve years, FISA boosters have been dismissing the concerns those of us who follow closely have raised (and there are multiple other topics not addressed here). And now, after more than a decade, after a big fight from FBI, we’re finally beginning to put the measures in place to show that those concerns were merited all along.

[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

The 702 Compliance Reporting

This will be a very weedy post on two quarterly reports on 702 compliance released to ACLU under FOIA: March 2014, March 2015; the March reports both cover the December 1 through February 28 period. ACLU obtained them not by FOIAing quarterly compliance reporting directly. Rather, ACLU asked for all the documents referred in this Summary of Notable Section 702 Requirements, which they had received earlier. But the released copies are entirely useless in elucidating the Notable Requirements. The 2015 report, for example, was provided in part to explain how NSA assesses whether a selector will provide foreign intelligence information, but the section of the report that details with it (item 28 on page 46) has been withheld entirely (see break between PDF 8 and 9). In addition, there must be at least one more citation to it that is redacted in the Notable Requirements document. The reference(s) to the 2014 report are entirely redacted.

There are a few places such redacted references to the two reports might be: There’s a missing citation in Pre- and Post-Tasking Due Diligence (the redaction at the bottom of 2). There may be a citation missing in the continued assessment section at the bottom of page 4. There’s definitely one missing in the Obligation to Review section (page 5). There’s likely to be one in the long redacted passage on page 6 pertaining to resolving post-tasking problems as quickly as possible. And the sole footnote (see page 11) in the Summary has a reference, which is likely one on FBI techniques to analyze Section 702 information the government identified as being withheld in its entirety.

So the Compliance reports don’t help us — at all — to understand the requirements the government places on itself with respect to 702.

But they do show us, in more granular detail than show up in the Semiannual reports (this one includes the March 2014 period and this one includes the March 2015 period), the kinds of things that show up in the compliance reviews. The compliance reporting in both is generally organized in to the same sections (see page 29):

  • Tasking Issues
  • Detasking Issues
  • Notification Delays
  • Documentation Issues
  • Overcollection
  • Minimization
  • Other

And — as the Semiannual Report makes clear — we’re just seeing a fraction of the granular descriptions in the quarterly reports, because we’re not seeing the tasking, detasking, notification, or documentation issues. That means the unredacted content in the released reports represents less than 20% of the total number of compliance incidents for these two quarters.

Though we may be able to use the reports in conjunction to identify how many selectors, on average, are tasked at any given time. If the 25 minimization issues cited in the March 2015 report are representative (meaning there’d be 50 for the entire six month period), then there’d be roughly 338 incidents across all topics for the six month period (it’s not entirely clear how they deal with overlap). Given a compliance rate of .35% per average facilities tasked, this means roughly 96,571 facilities tasked at any given time, thought that may be low given the vastly different lead times on these reports (meaning in the interim year, the government might ID many more compliance issues that get reported primarily in the Semiannual report). There were 94,368 targets across the whole year in FY 2015 (which covers this entire period because the Fiscal Year begins in October). What that suggests is that for some targets, you’ll have more than one facility tasked at any given time, but unless there’s a lot of turnover in a given year (meaning that most targets are only tasked for some weeks or months), not that many.

Which leaves us with what the reports do show us: the other (largely dissemination) and minimization (largely overly broad queries and US person queries) compliance errors, errors which I’ve roughly tallied in this document.


Between the two quarterly reports, there are 13 incidences of what I’m lumping under improper dissemination (the report treats database dissemination differently from disseminating unmasked USP identities). Most of these are fairly non-descript, true error. In three cases, analysts at other agencies alerted the NSA that they had not masked a US person identity.

The exceptions are 2015-19 and -20, which are almost entirely redacted but pretty clearly deal with NSA sharing raw data with FBI and/or CIA improperly.

I find the second one — which includes no unredacted discussion of emergency detasking or other mitigation — to be the more alarming of the two. But in general, the possibility that NSA might mistakenly send FBI (especially) the wrong data is troubling because once things get to FBI they get far less direct scrutiny (both in terms of compliance reviews and in terms of auditing) than NSA gets. Sending the collection on an entire selector over to another agency is far more intrusive than sending over one unmasked name (though it’s not clear this raw data belonged to a US person). Plus, once things get to FBI they can start having repercussions.

Overbroad Queries

The overbroad queries are interesting not so much because they affect US persons directly (though they do in perhaps two cases), but for what they say about the querying process. Here’s what the 2015 Semiannual Report says about overbroad queries, which it acknowledges is a problem even while attributing the problem to errors in constructing Boolean queries.

(U) NSA’s minimization procedures require queries of Section 702-acquired data to be designed in a manner “reasonably likely to return foreign intelligence information.” Approximately 29% of the minimization errors in this reporting period involved non-compliance with this rule regarding queries (54% in the last reporting period).56 As with prior Joint Assessments, this is the cause of most compliance incidents involving NSA’s minimization procedures. These types of errors are typically traceable to a typographical or comparable error in the construction for the query. For example, an overbroad query can be caused when an analyst mistakenly inserts an “or” instead of an “and” in constructing a Boolean query, and thereby potentially received overbroad results as a result of the query. No incidents of an analyst purposely running a query for nonforeign intelligence reasons against Section 702-acquired data were identified during the reporting period, nor did any of the overbroad queries identified involve the use of a United States person identifier as a query term.

That generally accords with the most common description of the compliance errors: an analyst constructs a query poorly, recognizes as soon as she gets the results (presumably resulting in far more returned records than expected), someone (the reports as often as not don’t tell us who) deletes them, and it gets reported. There are a few incidents where analysts run multiple such queries before discovering the problem — that seems like more of a concern, as fat-fingering a Boolean connector shouldn’t explain it. I’m interested in the errors (2015-7, -8, and -9) where the redaction seems to suggest either some other kind of query or some embarrassment about disclosing that top secret method, Boolean search; it’s possible this pertains to XKS searches, which can also involve scripts. One of these overboard queries was done by a linguist (which given the Reality Winner case is interesting). There are also discrepancies about whether the analyst themselves discovered the problem or an auditor, the latter of which happened at least five times (two incidences don’t describe who discovered them). Finally, there are interesting differences in the description of the coaching that happens after an issue. Sometimes none is described. Most often, the report describes the analyst getting a talking to. But in a number of cases, “personnel,” which might be plural, get coaching. I’m interested in when more than one person would get such coaching.

Finally, consider what it means that most of these violations seem to involved multiple authorities, including 702. That’s not at all surprising: you’d want to track a target across all the collection you had on the person. But that also includes upstream 702, which may be part of the problem upstream became such a problem.

US Person Queries

Finally, there are the queries using US person identifiers that, for some reason, were improper under the guidelines first approved in 2011. As I’ve noted, these have been a consistent problem since at least 2013. The Semiannual Report acknowledges this, or at least the problems with searching upstream 702 data, which was prohibited in the 2011 guidelines.

(U) Additionally, as noted in prior Joint assessments, the joint oversight team believes NSA should assess modifications to systems used to query raw Section 702-acquired data to require analysts to identify when they believe they are using a United States person identifier as a query term. Such an improvement, even if it cannot be adopted universally in all NSA systems, could help prevent compliance instances with respect to the use of United States person query terms.59 NSA plans to test and implement this recommendation during calendar year 2016. The new internal compliance control mechanism being developed for NSA data repositories containing unevaluated and unminimized Section 702 information will require analysts to document whether the query being executed against the database includes a known United States person identifier. Once the query is executed, the details concerning the query will be passed to NSA’s auditing system of record for post-query review and potential metrics compilation. As part of the testing, NSA will evaluate the accuracy of reporting this number in future Joint Assessments.60

As you review the violations discovered in 2014 and 2015, remember that (as noted in the 2017 702 authorization), these results were in a period where NSA was just discovering far more pervasive problems with US person searches. As it is, in each quarter here, there were 10 or 11 inappropriate US person searches. In 2014, a number of those (2,5, 8, 17) were searches of 702 data using identifiers associated with US persons already targeted under Title I, 704, or 705(b). Just one (5) of the 2015 violations was approved for individual targeting, and that appears to be one of the earlier violations in the quarter (note it must have occurred in December 2014). That’s interesting, because this undated guideline on USP queries of 702 collections says any US person approved for individualized targeting or RAS (under the old phone dragnet) could be backdoor searched. It seems likely, then, they changed the policy in 2015 (which is particularly alarming, given that they did so just as NSA was moving towards discovering how bad their upstream searches were. In other words, they seem to have made legal one of the practices that was coming up as a violation.

These violation descriptions are also interesting for the (often redacted) specificity about the kind of selector used, sometimes described as email, telephony (which could include messaging), and in others as “facilities” (which might include cookies or IPs). That’s an indication of the range of identifiers under which you can search 702 data, which is in turn (because 702 searches are all supposed to derive from PRISM collection) a testament to the kinds of things that get turned over in PRISM returns.

Of the violations described, just one obviously pertains to the search on an identifier for which the authorization had expired. That’s interesting, because searches on expired warrants appeared far more frequently in past reports. Significantly, the IG Report reviewing compliance 704/705(b), which reviewed queries for two months that overlapped with the 2015 report at issue (January and February 2015; the compliance report included December 2014 whereas the IG Report included March 2015), did find persistent problems with expired authorizations, but in EO 12333 data (suggesting FISA queries might have fixed earlier such problems). But the discussion of these problems in Rosemary Collyer’s 702 reauthorization opinion shows that for one tool, 85% of 704/705(b) queries conducted from November 2015 through April 2016 — well after the later quarter covered here — were non-compliant. “Many of these non-compliant queries involved use of the same identifiers over different date ranges.” NSA was unable to segregate and destroy the improper queries. That’s perhaps unsurprising, because as late as April 2017, the NSA was still having difficulties identifying all the queries run against 702 data.

And in spite of the reports, from later 702 reporting that some of the 704/705(b) queries of 702 did not get included in auditing systems, a good number of these violations were not discovered by analysts (as often happened with improper queries) but by auditors, suggesting the violations may have had an impact on US persons.

All that said, there’s not all that much there there, aside from the sheer number (which the Semiannual report seems to think is just NSA’s serial refusal to fix the problem of default search settings). These two snap-shots of the 702 upstream query problem, capturing 702 collection in the period immediately before it started to blow up, are also an indication of how much ODNI/DOJ’s oversight of NSA (which is far more rigorous than the oversight than the same agencies give CIA and especially FBI) was missing.