How to Get a Wiretap to Spy on Americans, and Why That Matters Now
(The New York Times | Jan. 30, 2018) A fight over a classified memo written by Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee, which portrays as scandal-draped the early stages of the Justice Department investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia, is heightening interest in legal issues about intelligence wiretap applications.
On Monday, the committee, which is led by Representative Devin Nunes of California, voted along party lines to set in motion a process to soon make the memo public under an obscure House rule, while rejecting a request to simultaneously disseminate a rebuttal memo produced by the committee’s Democrats.
According to people who have read it, the Republicans’ memo describes what they portray as an abuse of government surveillance powers. It centers on a classified wiretap application the government submitted to a judge in the fall of 2016 that targeted Carter Page, a onetime Trump campaign official who had traveled to Russia in July 2016 and was preparing to return there that December, along with renewal applications.
What is a FISA wiretap?
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, signed into law in 1978, requires the government, when eavesdropping on communications on domestic soil for national security purposes, to obtain permission from a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The judge must agree that the target is probably an agent of a foreign power and will probably use the specific email accounts or phone numbers that the Justice Department wants to wiretap …
… David Kris, who ran the Justice Department’s National Security Division early in the Obama administration and helped write a book about FISA, says that when the department submits material from sources to the court, “it should also include information that would cast material doubt on their credibility — sources often come with bias or baggage of one sort or another.”
But, he said, “there is no requirement for elaborate accounting: Courts routinely accept and uphold affidavits that generally describe a source’s shortcomings” without every specific detail.William C. Banks, a Syracuse University law professor who has studied the FISA Court, said that without reviewing all the documents involved in the surveillance request, it was impossible to judge the importance of how Mr. Steele was described. But he emphasized that the government had broad leeway in seeking FISA warrants.
“Carter Page was doing business in Russia, talking to Russian diplomats who may have been involved in intelligence activities directed at the United States,” Mr. Banks said. “Game over. The standards are incredibly open-ended”…
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