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New Report Shows Decrease in FISA Surveillance Warrants

The number of people targeted for court-approved surveillance warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) by U.S. counterintelligence officials in 2019 dropped to its lowest level in seven years, after a steady rise before the dip, according to a newly declassified report by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

The report, Statistical Transparency Report Regarding Use of National Security Authorities, releases statistics on how frequently U.S. officials use certain national security authorities. “This report goes beyond the government's statutory duty of providing statistics by further providing the public with detailed explanations as to how the intelligence community uses its national security authorities,” the report said.

The new report of surveillance-related statistics is the seventh annual one. ODNI began issuing this annual report after the 2013 leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, which spurred a public debate about electronic spying.

According to the report, from 2013 to 2018 the number of targeted persons for FISA wiretap and search warrants averaged more than 1,500 people each year and rose from 1,144 in 2013 to a peak of 1,833 targets in 2018. But in 2019, the number of targets dropped to 1,059.

This drop, notes the New York Times, occurred as the FBI’s use of FISA to wiretap Carter Page, a former campaign adviser for President Trump, came under scrutiny. Trump and some Republicans in Congress portrayed the wiretapping of Page as part of a “Deep State” conspiracy to sabotage Trump for political reasons. In response, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a study on the matter which did not find evidence of the conspiracy theory but did find several errors in wiretap applications submitted to the courts.

For more information on the legal issues surrounding the FISA program, see the “Legal Report” column in the January 2020 issue of Security Management.