Number of FBI intelligence database searches on Americans has dropped in last year, report says

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of FBI searches of a vast foreign intelligence repository for information about Americans and people in the United States plummeted over the last year from the prior 12 months, according to a U.S. government report released Tuesday.

The release of the annual report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence comes more than a week after a bitterly divided Congress voted to reauthorize a surveillance program that administration officials say is crucial for national security but that civil liberties advocates say results in privacy abuses of Americans.

The program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, permits the U.S. government to collect without a warrant the communications of targeted foreigners located in other countries — including when those subjects are in contact with Americans or other people inside the U.S.

A key source of concern, uniting an unusual alliance of far-right Republican supporters of former President Donald Trump with Democratic champions of civil liberties, is that FBI analysts have repeatedly run improper or justified database queries about U.S. persons.

FBI officials say they've made significant reforms to minimize those violations, and after days of debate last month, the Senate approved by a 60-34 vote a two-year extension of the program. President Joe Biden subsequently signed it into law.

The report released Tuesday shows that the number of so-called U.S. person queries fell from 119,383 between December 2021 and November 2022 to 57,094 between December 2022 and November 2023.

The number a year before that — 2,964,643 — was significantly higher but the report attributes that spike in large measure to an FBI investigation involving attempted cyber intrusions of critical infrastructure during which analysts ran about 1.9 million queries related to potential victims.

The report identifies multiple possible reasons for the reduction over the last year, including a requirement that the FBI enter a justification for a database query about an American before conducting it and tighter approval mandates for searches that are deemed especially sensitive.

The latest figures are included in an annual report, mandated by law, that provides statistical data about a broad array of the U.S. government's surveillance powers.