How US electronic surveillance disrupted Iran’s advanced weapons program

The disclosure is the administration’s latest argument that the spying authority — Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — is crucial to national security as it fights to get Congress to reauthorize the tool before it expires at the end of the year.

Many in Congress are calling for changes to Section 702 — which allows intelligence agencies to collect and analyze communications such as emails and text messages of foreigners living abroad — after the FBI was found to have improperly mined the database to see if U.S. political protesters, campaign donors and even members of Congress were on the other end of those exchanges.

The administration has argued that reforms made since those abuses were identified are sufficient and that Section 702 will lose much of its usefulness if more guardrails are put on it.

In the case of Iran’s advanced weapons program, the officials said Section 702 was critical to stopping the weapons sales. They said they used other spying activities to identify what U.S.-made supplies the Iranians needed, and then plugged the names of those components and their manufacturers into the 702 database.

The searches, they said, returned the type of detailed intelligence needed to thwart the sales, including their cost, timing and size. Both officials were granted anonymity to speak about sensitive intelligence matters.

The officials declined to provide further details, or specify the manufacturers or components involved.

“It wasn’t one specific action. It was a number of actions,” the official said. “In at least one instance, if not more, specific sales were stopped either before they went or while they were en route.”

In recent months, U.S. officials have increasingly been disclosing examples of how Section 702 has been used to protect national security, including thwarting the flow of fentanyl through the southern border and identifying the hacker behind a 2021 ransomware attack that crippled one of the country’s largest fuel pipelines.

While Section 702 is generally expected to get renewed in some version, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are calling for a variety of changes. One bipartisan cohort wants to require spy agencies to obtain a court order before conducting queries that involve U.S. citizens. Others argue there’s no need to require a warrant but that there should be more limits on how agencies access the data.

The officials said queries on U.S. citizens or others in the U.S. were central in the case involving the sale of weapons parts to Iran and in 2022 to help the administration target an individual and foreign firm that attempted to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The officials would not specify the name of the company or the country but said the sale of the Iranian goods amounted to tens of millions of dollars. By conducting 702 queries of the names of the individual and company involved, the U.S. Treasury Department was able to block the sale, the officials said.

“Sometimes 702 is the only collection that we have on these kinds of things. So it makes it that much more critical,” the official said.

The disclosures are still unlikely to change privacy advocates’ view on the necessity of a warrant requirement.

Elizabeth Goitein, the senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, pointed out it’s possible both weapons and sanctions queries would have been permissible under a recent 702 reauthorization bill that privacy stalwarts in both chambers unveiled earlier this month.

The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Reps. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), includes warrant carve-outs for some queries, including those in which the government can get the consent of the victim.

Goitein also said the administration was still focusing too much on the national security value of the program and hadn’t done enough to address the public’s real concern: privacy.

“These belated and weak examples … merely underscore how out of touch the administration is with the concerns of lawmakers and the conversation that’s actually happening on the Hill,” Goitein said.

Lofgren argued warrants wouldn’t cripple U.S. intelligence or law enforcement agencies.

“I trust that law enforcement can continue robustly protecting our national security after obtaining search warrants for surveillance activities,” Lofgren said in an emailed statement. “It does not need to be one or the other — the Fourth Amendment and security can go hand-in-hand.”

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