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US National Security Surveillance Dropped In 2020 As Pandemic Kept Suspects At Home

Travel restrictions and event cancellations drove down need for court-approved wiretaps, officials say. US National Security Surveillance Dropped In 2020 As Pandemic Kept Suspects At Home

U.S. intelligence agencies used foreign intelligence laws to eavesdrop on suspected spies and terrorists far less frequently last year, officials said Friday.

A chief reason: The Covid-19 pandemic forced suspects to stay home by reducing travel, and canceled events with the potential for mass violence such as concerts, officials said in presenting an annual transparency report that detailed the use of powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other spying authorities.

The number of people targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for court-approved foreign intelligence wiretaps, which must be authorized under the FISA law, fell to 451 in 2020 from 1,059 a year earlier. The figure is the lowest level in eight years of record-keeping by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a sharp reduction from a high of 1,833 registered in 2018. That spying metric was among several reported Friday that have gradually fallen for years but saw an accelerated decline in 2020.

“This was a year unlike any other,” Ben Huebner, chief of the civil liberties, privacy and transparency office at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told reporters Friday. The pandemic, Mr. Huebner said, was the “single event with the biggest impact on human behavior world-wide since the Second World War [and] it also had an impact on our foreign intelligence targets.”

Other possible factors in the decline included controversy over eavesdropping during the Trump presidency, efforts by the FBI to better control the FISA law, and technological shifts by potential targets such as greater use of social media and phone apps that are often public.

Intelligence officials stressed that the decline wasn’t due to an easing of security threats.

The decrease in surveillance coincided with intense scrutiny of the FISA process by Republican lawmakers and some officials during the Trump administration, centered on the monitoring of onetime Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Mr. Page’s travel to Russia had attracted the interest of counterintelligence officials probing Russian interference in the 2016 election.

A Justice Department inspector general found in 2019 the FBI had made mistakes in applications for surveillance on Mr. Page, and a separate review last year found widespread errors in how the FBI sought approval for surveillance under FISA. Those reviews led to efforts by the FBI to tighten up when and how investigators seek surveillance orders.

Last year also saw a decline in the FBI’s collection of business records for national security investigations, Friday’s report showed. In 2020, the FBI obtained 28 orders to gather business records on 25 targets of investigation, down from 61 orders for 53 targets in 2019.

That drop stems in part from the lapse last year of a section of the Sept. 11-era Patriot Act. Without opposing the business records provisions in particular, President Trump and some Republicans said the FISA system improperly enabled the FBI to investigate his 2016 presidential campaign.

Lawmakers in both parties have said they want to renew the expired portion of the law.

The FBI is permitted to obtain orders for national security investigations that began before the law’s expiration, or for investigations into activity that took place before the lapse. Twenty of the 28 orders obtained last year were for continuing probes after the provision lapsed, a senior Justice Department official said.

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