The FBI apparently makes a habit of violating policies meant to protect U.S. citizens from unwarranted surveillance, something Congress should address in a rewrite or repeal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
That’s the most obvious and alarming conclusion in a recent memo by Michael Horowitz, inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice, as he continues to look at how the FBI goes about seeking warrants for secret surveillance.
A report Horowitz’s office released late last year found “at least 17 significant errors or omissions” in the FBI’s applications for secret wiretaps of Carter Page, an adviser to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The FBI was not, the inspector general discovered, following its own procedures to ensure the court was made aware of facts that might weigh against allowing wiretaps.
The office found no evidence of political bias, just sloppiness in following procedures aimed at making sure a target’s rights were protected from FBI overreach. So, the next obvious question was the one Horowitz’s team is looking at now: Was this sloppiness confined to Page’s case or its usual practice?
The latter would seem to be the case, judging by the inspector general’s review of 29 applications seeking surveillance of U.S. persons under FISA.
The FBI failed to provide the inspector general’s office with the files for four of the applications, and a review of the remaining 25 found errors and discrepancies in all of them, with an average of 20 problems each. The office made no judgment, for now, regarding the severity of the mistakes found, but they’re important because they involve so-called Woods Files — the documents justifying each factual claim in the FBI’s applications to spy on U.S. citizens.
This initial review is worrisome because it points to sloppiness in the FBI’s handling of a very sensitive matter: spying on American citizens. And whether the mistakes were significant — as were many in Page’s case — the inspector general’s conclusion is one Congress should take to heart in looking at FISA: “[W]e do not have confidence that the FBI has executed its Woods Procedures in compliance with FBI policy.”
Given that, the FBI’s response to Horowitz’s latest memo — that it believes it has corrected the errors in its procedure with checklists and other reforms — is not heartening.
The FBI says it needs the ability to spy on U.S. citizens to protect the nation from terrorism. The Woods Procedures were supposed to be citizens’ guarantee that the courts reviewing applications to spy on them were being given the fullest possible picture of the evidence for such warrants. As Horowitz’s recent memo shows, that is not happening.
Congress needs to take a hard look at Horowitz’s ongoing probe and either drastically reform or repeal FISA.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE