News & Politics

Media Ignores FISA Court's Scorching Criticism of FBI Conduct in Surveillance Applications

Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Inspector General's report on alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Have you heard? The FISA court issued a scorching public order highly critical of the FBI and their surveillance applications on the Trump campaign.

You haven’t heard? That’s not surprising considering that the media has almost universally ignored it or downplayed its significance.

Fox News:

The secretive court scolded the FBI for FISA abuses that surfaced in the recent Inspector General report, a powerful rebuke of the bureau deemed unworthy of coverage by prominent news organizations.

ABC’s “World News Tonight,” NBC’s “Nightly News” and CBS’ “Evening News” all skipped the story, according to the Media Research Center.

“A complete and total blackout. That was how ABC, CBS, and NBC reacted on their Tuesday evening newscasts,” MRC news analyst Nicholas Fondacaro wrote. “Instead of reporting on this damning order by the top FISC judge, the broadcast networks were salivating over impeachment.

This isn’t really surprising. After all, over the air network news is only half-an-hour long and there’s a president to be impeached.

But what if you’re a network that features only news 24 hours a day?

CNN completely skipped the story during the primetime hours of 8-11 p.m. ET, too, according to a search of transcripts.

And while CNN spent the evening fixated on impeachment, MSNBC briefly mentioned the IG report and FISA process but didn’t specifically dive into the FISC criticizing the FBI.

All the cable nets covered the FISA news on the web, so I guess that’s something.

But this wasn’t just “something.” Rosemary M. Collyer is the presiding judge over a court that can order the surveillance of any American basically on the FBI’s say-so. It has the power to do more mischief to civil liberties than any other court.

There have been FISC abuses in the past. When 99 percent of FISA applications are approved by the court, they must have gotten a few wrong along the way.

But the rebuke from Collyer should be a warning to all of us.

“The FBI’s handling of the Carter Page applications, as portrayed in the [Office of Inspector General] report, was antithetical to the heightened duty of candor described above,” Collyer wrote in her four-page order. “The frequency with which representations made by FBI personnel turned out to be unsupported or contradicted by information in their possession, and with which they withheld information detrimental to their case, calls into question whether information contained in other FBI applications is reliable.”

While Collyer’s order did not specify exactly what reforms the FBI needed to implement to its policies for obtaining permission to wiretap people under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, the order did say that the FISA court will weigh in on whether the reforms are deemed sufficient.

“The [FISA court] expects the government to provide complete and accurate information in every filing with the court,” Collyer wrote. “Without it, the [FISA court] cannot properly ensure that the government conducts electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes only when there is a sufficient factual basis.”

She’s accusing the FBI of lying to the court and withholding exculpatory evidence. Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote in his report that the FBI “made assertions” that were “inaccurate, incomplete, or unsupported by appropriate documentation.” But what both criticisms fail to address is the simple question of whether the FBI’s lies directly led to the FISC issuing a surveillance order. In other words, if the application had been true and honest, would the court still have approved the surveillance of Trump campaign aide Carter Page?

The chances are about 99% that the order would still have gone through. And that may be the real scandal. The FISA court has frightening power to spy on us and over the years, has become just another federal law enforcement agency, an appendage of the FBI. This is extraordinarily dangerous and threatening to our civil liberties.

But the media, playing impeachment for all it’s worth, can’t be bothered with covering the real threat. And that too is dangerous and threatening to our civil liberties.