TIME intelligence

FBI Doesn’t Know How Many Americans It Spies On

John Brennan CIA Nomination Hearing
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., listens to U.S. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism testify at his nomination hearing to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 7, 2013. Chris Maddaloni—CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Intel agencies dished on how many Americans get nabbed in the surveillance dragnet

New details emerged Monday on how many Americans are spied on by the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, in a letter that also revealed how few records on domestic surveillance are held by the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

A letter to surveillance-reform hawk Sen. Ron Wyden (D—Ore.) from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence made public Monday revealed that the NSA approved searches of the content of communications of 198 “U.S. person identifiers”—a number associated with the phone, computer, etc. of an American citizen or legal immigrant — and 9,500 searches of meta-data for U.S. person identifiers. The Central Intelligence Agency conducted “fewer than 1900″ queries associated with U.S. person identifiers, according to the letter.

But the FBI could present no hard numbers on how many American citizens it spies on, according to the letter. “The FBI does not track how many queries it conducts using U.S. person identifiers,” the letter says. In fulfilling its mandate as a domestic law enforcement agency, the letter says, “the FBI does not distinguish between U.S. and non-U.S. persons for purposes of querying Section 702 collection.”

Wyden slammed what he termed a “huge gap in oversight” in surveillance of American citizens. “When the FBI says it conducts a substantial number of searches and it has no idea of what the number is, it shows how flawed this system is and the consequences of inadequate oversight,” Wyden said in a statement.

The letter from ODNI comes after a June 5 hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill to reform domestic surveillance revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and others, in which Wyden pressed National Security Agency Deputy Director Rick Ledgett to say how many “warrantless searches for Americans’ communications have been conducted” under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Section 702 of FISA regulates the monitoring of foreign communications. Though the NSA is officially prohibited from targeting the communications of innocent Americans, due to the nature of global communication in the 21st century and the scale of the mass collection, American citizens’ communications can be swept up in the surveillance dragnet. Other intelligence and law enforcement agencies can query data collected by the NSA for information about their investigations.

As a vocal proponent of reform legislation to curtail the NSA’s surveillance of Americans, Wyden was displeased with the ODNI’s response to his request. “The findings transmitted to me raise questions about whether the FBI is exercising any internal controls over the use of backdoor searches including who and how many government employees can access the personal data of individual Americans,” Wyden’s statement said. “I intend to follow this up until it is fixed.”

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