A Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinion released last week revealed that the FBI violated the constitutional rights of 278,000 Americans in 2020 and 2021 with warrantless searches of their email and other electronic data. For each American that the FISA court permitted the FBI to target, the FBI illicitly surveiled almost a thousand additional Americans. This is only the latest federal surveillance scandal stretching back to the years after 9/11.
The FISA law was enacted in 1978 to curb the rampant illegal political spying exposed during the Richard Nixon administration. After the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration decided that the president was entitled to order the National Security Agency to vacuum up Americans’ emails and other data without a warrant. After The New York Times exposed the surveillance scheme in late 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that “the president has the inherent authority under the Constitution, as commander in chief, to engage in this kind of activity.” Gonzales apparently forgot the congressional impeachment proceedings against President Nixon. The Bush White House also asserted that the September 2001 “Authorization to Use Military Force” resolution Congress passed entitled Bush to tap Americans’ phones. But if the authorization actually allowed the president to do whatever he thinks necessary on the homefront, Americans had been living under martial law.
Federal judges disagreed with Bush’s prerogative to obliterate American privacy. The result was a 2008 FISA reform that authorized the feds to continue commandeering vast amounts of data. But under Section 702 of that law, the FBI was permitted to conduct warrantless searches of that stash for Americans’ data only to seek foreign intelligence information or evidence of crime.
President Barack Obama responded to the new law by sharply expanding the NSA’s seizures of Americans’ personal data. The Washington Post characterized Obama’s first term as “a period of exponential growth for the NSA’s domestic collection.” Obama’s Justice Department thwarted court challenges to the surveillance, thereby permitting the White House to claim that it was respecting Americans’ rights and privacy.
Edward Snowden blew the roof off the surveillance state with his disclosures starting in June 2013. But there was no reason to presume that federal crime sprees were not occurring before Snowden blew the whistle. Professor David Rothkopf explained in 2013 how FISA’s Section 702 worked: “What if government officials came to your home and said that they would collect all of your papers and hold onto them for safe-keeping, just in case they needed them in the future. But don’t worry…they wouldn’t open the boxes until they had a secret government court order…sometime, unbeknownst to you.”
The 2008 FISA amendments and Section 702 snared vast numbers of hapless Americans in federal surveillance nets. The Washington Post analyzed a cache of 160,000 secret email conversations/threads (provided by Snowden) that the NSA intercepted and found that nine out of ten account holders were not the “intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else.” Almost half of the individuals whose personal data was inadvertently commandeered were U.S. citizens. The files “tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes,” the Post noted. If an American citizen wrote an email in a foreign language, NSA analysts assumed they were foreigners who could be surveilled without a warrant.
Snowden also leaked secret court rulings that proved that the FISA Court had “created a secret body of law giving the National Security Agency the power to amass vast collections of data on Americans,” The New York Timesreported in 2013. FISA judges rubberstamped massive seizures of Americans’ personal data that flagrantly contradicted Supreme Court rulings on the Fourth Amendment. The Times noted that the FISA court had “become almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues,” and almost always giving federal agencies all the power they sought.
Unfortunately, Snowden’s courageous disclosures did not stop the outrages. The heavily-redacted 2022 opinion finally released Friday revealed that the FBI wrongly searched almost 300,000 Americans’ online lives. And this was on top of the roughly 3.4 million warrantless searches of Americans in 2021 via Section 702 that the FBI conducted that the Justice Department claimed was justified.
The latest disclosure from the FISA court signals that the FBI presumed that any American suspected of supporting the January 6, 2021 protests forfeited his constitutional rights. Roughly 2,000 pro-Trump protestors (including an unknown number of undercover agents and informants) entered the Capitol that day. But an FBI analyst exploited FISA to unjustifiably conduct searches on 23,132 Americans citizens “to find evidence of possible foreign influence, although the analyst conducting the queries had no indications of foreign influence,” according to FISA Chief Judge Rudolph Contreras. The court ruling did not disclose the standards (if any) the FBI used for its warrantless January 6 searches. Did Twitter retweets suffice?
The FBI exploited FISA to target 19,000 donors to the campaign of a candidate who challenged an incumbent member of Congress. An FBI analyst justified the warrantless searches by claiming “the campaign was a target of foreign influence,” but even the Justice Department concluded that almost all of those searches violated FISA rules.Apparently, merely reciting the phrase “foreign influence” suffices to nullify Americans’ rights nowadays. (In March, Rep. Darin LaHood (R-IL) revealed that he had been wrongly targeted by the FBI in numerous FISA 702 searches.)
The FBI conducted secret searches of the emails and other data of 133 people arrested during the protests after the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
The FBI conducted 656 warrantless searches to see if they could find any derogatory information on people they planned to use as informants. The FBI also routinely conducted warrantless searches on “individuals listed in police homicide reports, including victims, next-of-kin, witnesses, and suspects.” Even the Justice Department complained those searches were improper.
Judge Contreras lamented: “Compliance problems with the querying of Section 702 information have proven to be persistent and widespread.” The FBI responded to the damning report with piffle: “We are committed to continuing this work and providing greater transparency into the process to earn the trust of the American people and advance our mission of safeguarding both the nation’s security, and privacy and civil liberties, at the same time.”
But this is only the latest in a long series of FBI FISA scandals:
In 2002, the FISA court revealed that FBI agents had false or misleading claims in 75 cases and a top FBI counterterrorism official was prohibited from ever appearing before the court again.
In 2005, FISA chief judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly proposed requiring FBI agents to swear to the accuracy of the information they presented; that never happened because it could have “slowed such investigations drastically,” the Washington Post reported. So FBI agents continued to have a license to exploit FISA secrecy to lie to the judges.
In 2017, a FISA court decision included a 10-page litany of FBI violations, which “ranged from illegally sharing raw intelligence with unauthorized third parties to accessing intercepted attorney-client privileged communications without proper oversight.”
In 2018, a FISA ruling condemned the FBI for ignoring limits on “unreasonable searches.” As The New York Times noted, “F.B.I. agents had carried out several large-scale searches for Americans who generically fit into broad categories…so long as agents had a reason to believe that someone within that category might have relevant information. But [under FISA] there has to be an individualized reason to search for any particular American’s information.” The FBI treated the FISA repository like the British agents treated general warrants in the 1760s, helping spark the American Revolution.
In April 2021, the FISA court reported that the FBI conducted warrantless searches of the data trove for “domestic terrorism,” “public corruption and bribery,” “health care fraud,” and other targets—including people who notified the FBI of crimes and even repairmen entering FBI offices. If you sought to report a crime to the FBI, an FBI agent may have illegally surveilled your email. Even if you merely volunteered for the FBI “Citizens Academy” program, the FBI may have illegally tracked all your online activity. As I tweeted after that report came out, “The FISA court has gone from pretending FBI violations don’t occur to pretending violations don’t matter. Only task left is to cease pretending Americans have any constitutional right to privacy.” FISA court Chief Judge James Boasberg lamented “apparent widespread violations” of the legal restrictions for FBI searches but shrugged them off and permitted the scouring of Americans’ personal data to continue.
The FISA court treats the FBI like liberal judges treat serial shoplifters. Going back more than 20 years, FISA court rulings have complained of FBI agents lying to the court and abusing the law. As long as the FBI periodically promises to repent, the FISA court entitles them to continue decimating the Fourth Amendment.
Federal intelligence agencies refuse to even estimate how many Americans’ private data has been rounded up in government databases. There is no reason to presume that the feds have disclosed all their FISA wrongdoing. Prior to Edward Snowden’s leaks, the feds probably admitted less than 1% of federal surveillance abuses.
Section 702 will expire this year unless Congress reauthorizes that provision of the law. But the FBI’s perpetual crime wave has created a hornet’s nest on Capitol Hill. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) asked: “How much longer must we watch the FBI brazenly spy on Americans before we strip it of its unchecked authority?” Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) declared, “We need a pound of flesh. We need to know someone has been fired.” Even Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, opposes reauthorizing Section 702 without fundamental reforms.
But will Congress finally stop the federal spying spree on Americans? As I tweeted on December 27, 2012, “FISA Renewal: Only a fool would expect members of Congress to give a damn about his rights and liberties.” Without radical reform, FISA should be renamed the “Trust Me, Chumps!” Surveillance Act.
An earlier version of this piece was published by the Libertarian Institute