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Number of surveillance targets declined amid pandemic, intel report says

U.S. agencies surveilled fewer foreign intelligence targets in 2020 because seismic changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic “likely influenced target behavior” during that year, an annual transparency report revealed on Friday.  

While the number of surveillance targets fluctuates from year to year for operational, technological and other reasons, the decline in 2020 may have been due to an overall reduction in both global travel and mass gatherings, which in the past may have presented opportunities for large-scale attacks, officials who briefed reporters said.  

The 2021 Annual Statistical Transparency Report, which has been issued yearly since the 2013 leaks on domestic surveillance programs by National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, offers an accounting of the intelligence community’s use of surveillance authorities, some of which can affect Americans.   

The number of individuals targeted by the FBI for surveillance through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Act had been declining, but this year’s report shows 2020 is the lowest year on record – just 451 – down from 1,059 in 2019. There was not a decrease in national security threats overall, the officials said. 

2020 was “a year unlike any other,” Ben Huebner, the chief civil liberties, privacy, and transparency officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said. “The pandemic was the single event with the biggest impact to human behavior worldwide since the Second World War. That means it also had an impact on our appropriate foreign intelligence targets.” 
 
“Human behavior changed for everyone this year,” a senior FBI official said. “Regardless of who you are, you’re not traveling as much.” 
 
The decline also coincided with increased scrutiny of the FBI’s use of FISA authorities after applications to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign associate Carter Page were deemed by an inspector general review to be significantly flawed. Officials from the FBI, Justice Department and ODNI said on Friday that there were no directives from the Trump administration to avoid using FISA-related authorities when they were needed.

This year’s report did not include statistics on the National Security Agency’s call detail records (CDR) program, which was, for a time, used by the agency to collect some data on U.S. phone calls in bulk — and a more expansive version of which Snowden first publicly revealed. Legislation passed in the aftermath of the Snowden leak curtailed the program.  
 
But after several incidents attributed to “technical irregularities” in 2018 and 2019 caused the NSA to receive data it was not authorized to collect, the agency said it would expunge hundreds of millions of records, and later suspended the program. The provision of the USA Freedom Act that authorized the more limited phone data collection program expired last year.  
 
“In calendar year 2020, there were no court orders authorizing use of the CDR authority…no call detail records acquired pursuant to this authority, and no queries of previously acquired CDR holdings because these records were deleted in 2019,” the ODNI report said.    

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