Tag: FISA

The FISA Follies: The “Schiff Memo” Edition

On Saturday (Feb. 24), House Intelligence Committee Democrats were finally able to publish their rebuttal to the “Nunes Memo” written by the committee’s GOP majority staff and released earlier this month. So what have we learned from this Democratic rebuttal memo? As it turns out, not much we didn’t already know—though you wouldn’t get that impression from the media’s reaction to and characterization of the “Schiff Memo” following its release. 

NPR’s Philip Ewing and his editors preferred to treat the dueling memos episode as a game:

The more a game is played, the more adept teams become at its rules and strategies. Basketball defenders deliberately foul an opponent to force a free-throw. A manager brings up a left-handed reliever to pitch inside to a dangerous left-handed hitter.

The Republican memo gambit and last weekend’s Democratic riposte complete the first enactment of what could become a recurring sideshow inside Washington. The majority uses its control of the committee and its alliances inside the executive branch to release an unexpurgated file even if some of the relevant agencies object—as the FBI and Justice objected to the release of the Nunes memo.

The minority can’t twist the arms of the agencies controlled by its opponents and it can’t get parity with the opening shot: Nunes’ memo was released by lunchtime on a Friday following a week of extensive coverage. Schiff’s memo came out with no preliminary fanfare on a Saturday afternoon.

So will this be the template for each game? Or will Nunes and Schiff take a different approach next time? And with the rules more or less set, how will other players respond? Round Two is already different: Nunes suggested he was preparing another memo about what he calls problems with President Obama’s State Department. So a former State official wrote a column in the Washington Post that tried to short-circuit that attack.

So for NPR, allegations of FBI/DoJ potential misuse of the FISA process is like watching a Wizards-Celtics match-up on ESPN.

The FISA Follies: “War of the Memos” Edition

As I was preparing for a Demand Progress-sponsored panel on Congressional oversight of intelligence matters on the afternoon of February 9, Demand Progress Policy Director Daniel Schuman and I agreed that if President Trump was going to refuse to “declassify” the House Intelligence Committee Democrats rebuttal to the “Nunes Memo,” he would wait until the late Friday news cycle to do it. We didn’t have to wait long for that prediction to come true

In a moment, I’ll get to the issue of whether Trump actually has the authority under the Constitution to do what he did, but I want to start with is this paragraph from the New York Times story referenced above:

But Donald F. McGahn II, the president’s lawyer, said in a letter to the committee on Friday night that the Democratic memo could not be released because it “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.” He said the president would again consider making the memo public if the committee, which had approved its release on Monday, revised it to “mitigate the risks.”

In that same NYT story, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff provided further context:

In a statement on Friday night, Mr. Schiff said that Democrats had provided their memo to the F.B.I. and the Justice Department for vetting before it was approved for release by the committee. The Democratic memo was drawn from the same underlying documents as the Republican one.

“We will be reviewing the recommended redactions from D.O.J. and F.B.I., which these agencies shared with the White House,” Mr. Schiff said, “and look forward to conferring with the agencies to determine how we can properly inform the American people about the misleading attack on law enforcement by the G.O.P. and address any concerns over sources and methods.”

So if Schiff is to be believed, House Intelligence Committee Democrats ran their memo by Justice Department and FBI officials prior to the unanimous committee vote to release his memo, then sent the memo over to the White House for reaction. Trump and his team then demanded still more redactions. If the above account is correct, the same Justice Department or FBI officials who reviewed the original “Schiff Memo” apparently demanded still more redactions once it got to Trump’s desk.

It’s this sequence of events which brings me to the question of whether Trump has the authority under the Constitution to censor or rewrite Congressional work product, with or without Congressional assent, if it contains references to Executive branch information asserted as being classified, in part or in whole. The short answer is no. The longer answer is still no, but with some caveats.

The FISA Follies: The Nunes Memo Edition

After much publicly acrimony and week-long speculation about its contents, the “Nunes Memo” (named for GOP House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) chairman Devin Nunes of California) was finally made public today. In reality, the document was authored by thus-far unidentified GOP HPSCI staffers and does not represent a genuine, bipartisan committee product. It is thus, by definition, a purely partisan document.

But what of its substance, if any? Is there anything truly new or genuinely important in the document that is worthy of follow up by Special Counsel Robert Mueller? Unlikely. Should the memo serve as an opportunity for Congress to revisit its anemic surveillance oversight and reform record? Absolutely. First, let’s deal with the memo.

The memo itself is concerned with FBI Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) surveillance requests targeting then-former Trump campaign aide Carter Page in 2016. The core Nunes Memo allegation is that material that would’ve cast doubt on the credibility of the so-called “Steele Dossier“–a piece of campaign opposition research on the Trump campaign compiled by former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele, portions of which were allegedly used in the October 2016 FISA application on Page submitted to the FISA Court (FISC) by the FBI. In essence, the Nunes Memo alleges that a piece of political campaign material was used in an effort to target Trump and his campaign staff, and that the FBI failed to disclose Steele’s political connection to the DNC and Clinton campaigns to the FISC. 

What the Nunes Memo fails to note is that Page was clearly a “person of interest” to the FBI as early as 2013 in connection with a counterintelligence investigation involving Russian spies–agents who were apparently attempting to recruit Page as a source. As a former intelligence officer myself, its very easy for me to see why the Bureau would be interested in Page and his ongoing contacts with Russians. That Nunes and his staff apparently don’t see the problem presented by Page’s Russian contacts should be of concern to anyone who cares about preventing hostile intelligence services from gaining access to Americans with potential political influence and access to sensitive government information via their friends in government.

The FISA Political Follies Continue

Last night, POLITICO ran a FISA-related story with the lede,”Republicans authorize sharing of classified report on FBI, DOJ officials’ conduct.” These are the two opening paragraphs:

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have authorized their colleagues to access a highly classified report that they say details their concerns with the conduct of top FBI and Justice Department officials, as well as the agencies’ handling of a controversial surveillance program.

“We have concerns — FISA concerns — that all members of the body should know,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), a member of the committee, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Some of President Donald Trump’s allies in the House have argued that the program was inappropriately used to surveil a foreign policy aide to the Trump campaign.

Since then, several other House GOP members have weighed in on Twitter about the memo in question: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), and House Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC).

Of the seven members I’ve seen raise this issue either in the POLITICO story or on Twitter, only one–Meadows–voted against the FISA surveillance expansion bill (S. 139) when it was before the House last week. That fact certainly raises some interesting questions the other six who did vote for S. 139 should answer:

  • When did the Representative learn of the HPSCI majority staff report in question—before or after the vote on S. 139
  • If the Representative learned of the memo before the vote on S. 139, why did he not publicly push for its release to all House members prior to the vote on S. 139? 
  • If the Representative learned of the memo before the vote on S. 139, why did the Representative vote in favor of a FISA bill that Fourth Amendment experts across the political spectrum argue would make such abuses more likely?
  • Since Meadows voted against S. 139, does he believe the House leadership should allow a new FISA reform bill to be brought to the floor to address the alleged abuses detailed in the memo?

A Spying “Reform” That Makes Things Worse

Donald Trump’s whiplash-inducing Twitter comments about the surveillance legislation his administration had just endorsed didn’t stop the House of Representatives from approving a bill to reauthorize the FISA Amendments Act for another six years, but if you watched the floor debate, you might come away thinking civil libertarians won at least a few concessions in the process. Defenders of the statute’s controversial Section 702, which authorizes warrantless surveillance of foreigners’ communications, rejected a proposal to require FBI agents to seek a warrant before querying the vast 702 database for Americans’ communications—a practice critics have dubbed a “backdoor search”—but did accept a narrower warrant requirement for queries conducted for criminal investigations unrelated to national security. Is this, as the bill’s boosters repeatedly insistence, a “compromise” that should provide some small consolation to civil libertarians?

Alas, no. There’s a good reason you won’t find any privacy advocates cheering even a partial victory following Thursday’s vote.  First, as I noted back in October, such a narrow warrant requirement would do almost nothing to prevent abuses of the sort it’s most reasonable to worry about: historical abuses of spying power have nearly all been clothed in invocations of national security.  But it’s worse than that.  The limited warrant requirement in the House bill not only exempts a potpourri of ordinary crimes—among them any involving the risk of death or serious injury, cybersecurity, or offenses against minors—it applies only to what are known as “predicated” or “full” investigations.  

House FISA Reform Battle Enters Final Stage

Last night, the House Rules Committee made in order one alternative to the HPSCI FISA Sec. 702 reauthorization bill, the USA Rights Act. You can view the Rule here

The bill was originally introduced in the Senate by Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rand Paul (R-KY). You can view a one-pager on the USA Rights Act here.  

None of this would have happened without the relentless effort of Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) and a number of his House Freedom Caucus colleagues, who’ve made clear for some time that they would not support the reauthorization of the extremely controversial (and constitutionally dubious) FISA Sec. 702 mass surveillance program in its current form. Amash is an original cosponsor of the House version of the USA Rights Act. 

To be clear, the USA Rights Act is itself a significantly deficient surveillance reform measure. The bill does not require the IC/FBI to purge their databases of data on Americans not the subject of a criminal investigation, nor does it mandate the kind of GAO audits that are necessary to truly help end surveillance abuses. It also accepts the USG framing that 702 is necessary, legitimate, and effective—assertions I’ve challenged previously. 

Despite those serious flaws, the USA Rights Act is a vastly more comprehensive FISA Sec. 702 reform measure than every existing alternative. It restores the 4th Amendment probable cause standard for searches of the data of Americans stored on FBI or IC IT systems, and it makes it easier for innocent Americans to sue the federal government for unlawful spying. And precisely because it would, if enacted, give citizens more tools to discover if they are the targets of unlawful or politically-motivated surveillance, I expect the House GOP leadership to do everything possible to defeat it on the House floor, as will the IC/FBI. Even if the USA Rights Act passes, the House GOP leadership has shown time and again that they are willing to ignore the will of the House and strip out real surveillance reform measures in conference with the Senate, as I’ve explained elsewhere

All of which underscores a point I’ve made for years: traditional advocacy on surveillance issues has generally proven ineffectual in stopping, much less rolling back, post-9/11 surveillance powers that we know have been abused. The reason is simple. The groups that lobby on these issues do not engage in electoral politics—which means politicans can vote for more surveillance powers in the name of “public safety” without fear of organized, targeted political reprisal from Bill of Rights supporters. Until that dynamic changes, enduring surveillance reform will remain elusive.

FISA “Reform”: The Surveillance Fear Mongering Campaign Ramps Up

The House GOP leadership must be at least somewhat worried about the prospects for passage of their Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act (FAA) Sec. 702 bill, HR 4478, which the House Rules Committee will consider later today in an “emergency” session.

I say this because this morning, the House GOP leadership circulated a wanted poster-style flyer of a dead man: Haji Iman, the alleged ISIS deputy finance minister and second in command to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in eastern Syria on March 25, 2016. The flyer puts the phrase “ISIS” in a huge font, just in case the reader wasn’t getting the message.

Claiming that “Iman would still be plotting to kill Americans without Section 702,” the flyer then makes an interesting admission: that the search for Iman “was ultimately successful based almost exclusively on intelligence activities under Section 702” (emphasis added).

Not only does the flyer provide no proof that Iman was planning attacks on the United States, it omits the fact that both the Iraqi and U.S. governments had previously claimed repeatedly that Iman had been killed—six times, in fact.

As I’ve noted previously, two other major post-9/11 surveillance programs—the illegal STELLAR WIND mass surveillance program, and the PATRIOT Act’s Sec. 215 telephone metadata collection program—failed to stop a single attack on America. If it took the NSA two years to find Iman using Section 702 “almost exclusively” after claiming repeatedly the man was dead, it should raise major questions about the veracity of the official government (and now House GOP leadership) account of this incident and the effectiveness of the Section 702 program.

And then there’s that tantalizing phrase—”almost exclusively.”

The flyer admits that programs besides Section 702 were responsible for finally—allegedly—killing Iman. So Section 702 collection was not, apparently, a “but for” capability (i.e., but for Section 702, Iman would still be alive). How effective is Secton 702? We don’t know. There’s never been an independent, case-by-case audit of claimed Section 702 “successes” during the nearly 10-year life of the program. And the bill being considered by the House Rules Committee today does not call for such an audit.

What the flyer also doesn’t say is that as written, HR 4788 would effectively expand warrantless surveillance under Section 702, including potentially against purely domestic targets. Given the abuses of the Section 702 program that have been exposed over the past several years, HR 4478 is an amazing statement of the contempt the House GOP leadership has for the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans.

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