Jefferson Morley | January 14, 2020
After a Harsh IG Report, FISA Reform Is on the Agenda
One the revelations of the report of Michael Horowitz, inspector general of the Justice Department, was the abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)
The act was passed by Congress in 1978, after revelations that CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton had presided over two massive program of spying on Americans. FISA requires the FBI or CIA to get a warrant from a secret court in order to listen in on the conversations of Americans. The judges on the FISA court are appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts.
Horowitz’s report illuminated how unfair the FISA process can be.
From Just Security
The report identified 17 significant problems—including inaccuracies, exaggerations, and omissions—in the applications the Department of Justice submitted to the FISA Court to conduct surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Moreover, the Inspector General found no evidence of political bias or any other special circumstances that would explain the problems. If, indeed, the Page applications were treated like any other, that would indicate that corner-cutting and application-padding are par for the course in FISA applications.
While conservatives are justifiably disturbed by the treatment of Page, they were mostly silent about previous reports of FISA abuse. The documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showed the chief victims of FISA abuses were American Muslims.
Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center writes:
In 2014, documents disclosed by Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. government had obtained FISA orders to conduct surveillance of five prominent Muslim Americans, including a former Department of Homeland Security official, the executive director of the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the U.S., and a professor of international relations at Rutgers University. The notion that these respected community leaders were all agents of a foreign power is as implausible as it sounds.
Boetein argues both for reforms in the FISA process and changing the culture of the FBI in which FISA abuses flourish. The first may be easier than the second.
The Inspector General’s report is a damning indictment. Thanks to the endlessly bizarre politics of the day, it is also an opportunity. Arguably, we are in another “Snowden moment” in which real surveillance reform is actually possible. The recommendations above, in my view, should be an important part of the reform discussion.