Like the casino-gambling scene in “Casablanca,” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court is “shocked, shocked” the Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to ravage the privacy of vast numbers of Americans.
For each American the FISA court permitted the FBI to target, the bureau illicitly surveilled almost 1,000 additional Americans.
The court’s just-revealed ruling signals the FBI presumed any American suspected of supporting the Jan. 6, 2021, protests forfeited his constitutional rights.
FISA was enacted in 1978 to curb the rampant illegal political spying exposed during the Nixon administration.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration decided the president was entitled to order the National Security Agency to vacuum up Americans’ and foreigners’ emails and other data without a warrant.
Federal judges disagreed, and 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.
The heavily redacted 2022 opinion finally released Friday revealed the FBI conducted 278,000 improper searches of Americans in 2020 and early 2021.
Incredibly, the bureau conducted roughly 3.4 million warrantless searches of Americans in 2021 via Section 702.
The day before, Thursday, an FBI whistleblower revealed in congressional testimony that FBI headquarters pressured agents to treat anyone who attended the Jan. 6 protests as a criminal suspect.
The FISA court opinion reveals the FBI wrongfully cast a far broader net.
Roughly 2,000 pro-Trump protesters (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 Jan. 6 searches. Did Twitter retweets suffice?
It gets worse. The FBI exploited FISA to target 19,000 donors to the campaign of an unnamed 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 almost all those searches violated FISA rules. (In March, Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) revealed he had been wrongly targeted by the FBI in numerous FISA 702 searches — but he wasn’t the challenger mentioned here.)
The FBI also conducted secret searches of the emails and other data of 133 people arrested during the 2020 protests after George Floyd’s killing.
And the bureau conducted 656 warrantless searches to see if it could find any derogatory information on people it 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.
This is only the latest in a long series of FBI FISA scandals.
In April 2021, the FISA court reported 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.
The FISA court treats the FBI like New York City 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 it to continue decimating the Fourth Amendment.
Federal intelligence agencies refuse to even estimate how many Americans’ private data have been rounded up in government databases.
There is no reason to presume the feds have disclosed all their FISA wrongdoing. Prior to Edward Snowden’s leaks, the feds probably admitted fewer than 1% of federal surveillance abuses.
Section 702 will expire this year unless Congress reauthorizes the provision. But the FBI’s perpetual crime wave has created a hornet’s nest on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) 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-Calif.) declared, “We need a pound of flesh. We need to know someone has been fired.”
Even Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan), the House Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, opposes reauthorizing Section 702 without fundamental reforms.
Perhaps FISA should be renamed the “Trust Me, Chumps!” Surveillance Act.
The FISA court has perpetually dismally failed to defend Americans’ constitutional rights.
Washington must finally admit that there is no secret “doing God’s work” clause in the Constitution that entitles FBI agents to trample Americans’ privacy and liberty.
James Bovard is the author of 10 books and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.