In 2013, controversy blossomed after the Associated Press revealed that the federal government had collected the phone records of up to a hundred journalists. Barack Obama confirmed the domestic espionage defiantly and defended it as necessary to prevent would-be leakers from compromising national security and costing American soldiers their lives. Now, according to The New York Post’s John Crudele, the government is at it again.
Mr. Crudele claims that a source in Washington told him that the Justice Department recently received a warrant from the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), more commonly known as the FISA court, to conduct electronic surveillance on a group of journalists who have received leaked information.
According to the unnamed but hopefully reliable source, the journalists aren’t the target. Rather, the Trump administration is only using the information to uncover the leaker. The prime suspect is allegedly a retired high-ranking military officer who was supposed to be getting his information from people inside the White House still loyal to the Obama administration. Those three alleged White House leakers have either already been fired or will be soon and may face prosecution by the Justice Department, according to Mr. Crudele’s secret confidant.
So it appears that Team Trump is finally on track to secure its leaks and purge itself of potential saboteurs left over from the previous administration. Good for them. With both progressives and never-Trump Republicans nationwide mounting attacks on his every decision, the president needs all the support he can get. However, while President Trump’s attempts to rid the White House of those who actively work against him are both understandable and commendable, his methods are – as Hillary Clinton might say – deplorable.
FISC was established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to, as the name suggests, oversee surveillance warrants against foreign spies acting inside the U.S. in the interest of protecting national security. Their own ‘About the Court’ page explains:
Pursuant to FISA, the Court entertains applications submitted by the United States Government for approval of electronic surveillance, physical search, and other investigative actions for foreign intelligence purposes.
Though the Court has evolved somewhat since its inception, it was never supposed to be used against American citizens – unless those citizens are suspected of treason as defined by the U.S. Constitution – which would make them agents of foreign powers and land them squarely in the Court’s jurisdiction. A high-ranking U.S. military officer who gets information from White House staffers and leaks it to the American press is certainly inconvenient for the president, but it’s hardly treason.
Those who might find themselves named in such a warrant do have the option to petition the Court to drop it, but only if they know they’re under investigation. Those who are ordered to hand over information have the option to refuse to comply, but section three of Rule 19 — Enforcement of Orders of the Court’s Rules of Procedure — makes it very clear the Court’s power should they decide to push the issue:
If the recipient fails to show cause for noncompliance with the underlying order, the Court may find the recipient in contempt and enter any order it deems necessary and appropriate to compel compliance and to sanction the recipient for noncompliance with the underlying order.
The language here is quite broad for legislation and very clear as well. There is no limit explicitly imposed on the Court’s power to coerce a recipient of one of their orders to comply. This is a massive amount of authority held by one entity – and the federal government is wielding that power against the very people it was supposed to protect.