FBI And DOJ Personnel Confirm Agents Frequently Fudge Facts When Seeking FISA Warrants
from the respecting-the-fuck-out-of-the-rule-of-law dept
The fallout from the FBI’s highly-questionable Carter Page investigation continues. The problems first came to light in an Inspector General’s report which found the FBI did a lot of creative writing to continue its surveillance of Page, even after information came to light indicating the former Trump adviser was not operating on behalf of a foreign power.
The IG pointed out the FBI warrants relied on statements that were “inaccurate, incomplete, or unsupported by appropriate documentation.” If the FBI did this in the Page investigation, it could easily be assumed the FBI had done it in other cases utilizing the FISA court. The protections erected to protect American citizens from surveillance by their own government were rendered useless by FBI statements the Inspector General was too kind to call lies.
The FBI has been ordered to overhaul its FISA warrant process by the FISA court. The FBI has agreed to do so, while still trying to downplay its serious violations as a long string of one-offs that apparently dates back at least 30 years. A new report from Charlie Savage and Adam Goldman for the New York Times opens with the recounting of the same sort of material omissions by the FBI during its hunt for an alleged Russian mole in the CIA. In that case, agents did the same thing, adding and subtracting evidence to continue unjustified surveillance.
This is, apparently, how the FBI performs its FISA business — something acknowledged by the many agents and DOJ officials the reporters spoke to about the latest FBI/FISA fiasco.
The problems may be part of a broader pattern in other applications that never receive the same intense scrutiny, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former F.B.I. agents and Justice Department officials who have worked with national security wiretaps. The system is vulnerable, they said, to lower-level agents suppressing or overlooking evidence that weakens their case when they seek permission to conduct surveillance.
The FBI is a law enforcement bureaucracy. Results are expected and no one gets participation trophies for investigations that go nowhere. To justify expenditures already on the books (and with an eye on funds not yet spoken for), agents have been adjusting narratives to ensure investigations keep running, even when the evidence appears to show there’s nothing worth investigating.
The time limits on FISA warrants add to the problem.
F.B.I. agents are also racing against a clock with FISA wiretaps — good for 90 days — which can also leave them open to confirmation bias, former officials said.
Once a wiretap is in place, Justice Department lawyers charged with seeking its renewal begin nagging F.B.I. agents to identify new facts gleaned from the wiretap that could help justify continuing it. But the lawyers are less insistent on finding facts that might instead undercut their suspicion, former officials said.
These all-too-human weaknesses haven’t been tempered by DOJ oversight or the FISA court. Since the court isn’t adversarial, it’s the FBI’s word against the FISA court’s judgment — and the Court is often flying blind, cut out of the loop by national security concerns even as it attempts to regulate the business of national security.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the FBI didn’t feel its evidentiary cherry-picking was worthy of discipline. Fortunately, the Inspector General — who has long complained about the lack of cooperation from the DOJ components he oversees — referred one FBI official involved in the Carter Page surveillance efforts for criminal investigation.
The problems uncovered in the Page case aren’t just an FBI problem. They’re a law enforcement problem. Warrants are 90% boiler plate and 10% cherry picking, even during legitimate investigations. When investigations fail to uncover criminal activity, they can be artificially extended by omitting anything that might suggest the target isn’t the criminal law enforcement thinks they are. Unlike other criminal cases, FISA evidence is tough to challenge. Whatever isn’t obscured by parallel construction is hidden from the defendant (and possibly the judge) as being too “sensitive” to be discussed in open court.
The FBI’s habit of abusing its powers isn’t going to be reversed just because some of it has been made public. It takes meaningful oversight to make any changes stick. The current Inspector General takes his job seriously, but those above him in Congress often seem more concerned with political point-scoring than actually addressing the root cause of this abuse.