The U.S. intelligence community historically has been loathe to release virtually any information about the way that its agencies operates, to the point that the existence of some of those agencies themselves was secret for decades. But in the wake of the Snowden leaks, more and more information is beginning to trickle out, and the latest data reveals that while the NSA conducted fewer than 200 queries regarding U.S. persons on Section 702 communications content last year, the CIA conducted nearly 10 times that many and the FBI ran an unknown number of such queries.
The newest bread crumb from the intelligence community comes via a letter from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to Sen. Ron Wyden, answering questions that Wyden had raised about Section 702 collection and queries during a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 5. Wyden, a vocal critic of he NSA for years, asked for specific numbers on the volume of queries using U.S. person identifiers of communications collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, one of the key authorities used by the NSA, CIA and others to collect intelligence.
Section 702 has been associated mainly with the national Security Agency’s metadata collection program, especially since the Snowden leaks began last year. It’s the authority under which the agency collects massive amounts of telephone metadata from providers and was the subject of the first of Edward Snowden’s leaks in June 2013. But the CIA and the FBI both use the FISA Section 702 authority as well, as the letter from the ODNI shows.
In 2013, the NSA approved 198 so-called U.S. person identifiers for use in queries of its Section 702 communications content. However, each one of those identifiers could have been used for multiple queries of the database. The agency also conducted about 9,500 queries of its 702 metadata. The CIA, meanwhile, conducted less than 1,900 metadata queries using U.S. person identifiers in 2013. About 40 percent of those were done at the behest of other U.S. intelligence agencies.
As for the FBI, that’s where the picture gets a little fuzzy.
“The FBI does not track how many queries it conducts using U.S. person identifiers,” the letter says.
The bureau has access to some of the Section 702 data collected by the NSA, but not all of it, and only asks for the data it needs for a specific investigation. Still, the letter says that “the FBI believes the number of queries is substantial.”
The FBI, unlike the CIA and NSA, is responsible for collecting and analyzing data on Americans. Intelligence agencies are not permitted to target U.S. persons for intelligence gathering under U.S. law, except under specific circumstances.