Secret Federal Court Rules Against the FBI Surveillance Program
The FISA court, essentially a secret court where either the FBI or the NSA can apply for warrants for wiretapping and other electronic surveillance, has existed since the passage of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The idea was that the court would be a one-stop place to obtain permission to wiretap foreign spies operating in the United States. Ironically as it turns out, the law was passed as a response to the Church Committee’s findings on abuses committed by the intelligence community.
FISA warrants became controversial after 9/11 when their scope was greatly expanded to monitor phone calls between American citizens and people overseas suspected of being terrorists, spies, or other unfriendly foreign entities. The NSA and the FBI were able to search phone databases to ascertain whether an American was in either phone or email contact with anyone “reasonably suspected” of being outside the United States determined to be an enemy.
Rising criticism of the FISA Court revolved around its secrecy, with little to no oversight. And with only the government agency and the judge being present when an application for a warrant is made. Also, warrants were more often than not granted, so much so that some have regarded them as a rubber stamp.
A more important criticism involved the feeling among many that FISA warrants involved a violation of Americans’ privacy rights. The government can do searchers of telephone calls and email databases, picking up keywords such as “bombing” or ”terrorism.” Based on those keywords, a government agency can obtain a FISA warrant to monitor the communications traffic more closely.
Things came to a head, according to Townhall, in 2018 when the FISA Court found that some of the FBI searchers of raw communications data were improper, violating both the FISA law and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The ruling was recently revealed to the media once the FBI lost on appeal.
The issue that the Court ruled on concerned searches that were not, strictly speaking, related to a suspected crime, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“The October 2018 court ruling identifies improper searches of raw intelligence databases by the bureau in 2017 and 2018 that were deemed problematic in part because of their breadth, which sometimes involved queries related to thousands or tens of thousands of pieces of data, such as emails or telephone numbers. In one case, the ruling suggested, the FBI was using the intelligence information to vet its personnel and cooperating sources. Federal law requires that the database only be searched by the FBI as part of seeking evidence of a crime or for foreign intelligence information.”
Even worse, the court found at least one instance of an FBI official who was searching the raw data for personal reasons.
“In other instances, the court ruled that the database had been improperly used by individuals. In one case, an FBI contractor ran a query of an intelligence database—searching information on himself, other FBI personnel and his relatives, the court revealed.”
Townhall opines that the ruling is good news, especially in light of the so-called Steele dossier, which was used by the FBI to obtain a FISA warrant to spy on Carter Page, the former foreign policy advisor to the 2016 Trump campaign. The dossier, as it turned out, was a highly inaccurate document developed by a former British spy paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign. The dossier was used by Peter Strzok, an anti-Trump FBI agent to authorize a counterintelligence investigation of President Trump to delve into the theory that he obtained the White House by collusion with Russian intelligence,
The idea that Vladimir Putin put Trump into the White House to do his bidding was seen by many to be a conspiracy theory worthy of spy fiction, such as “The Manchurian Candidate.” Nevertheless, the theory was the basis of the Mueller Investigation for the first two and a half years of the Trump presidency, with many in the media breathlessly awaiting the day that President Trump would be proven to be a Russian spy and a traitor to the United States. The results of the investigation were somewhat less than satisfactory to the never-Trump crowd.
Townhall concludes with the hope that the FBI will now proceed with some housecleaning to make sure such a sham investigation never happens again.