The secret court that oversees foreign intelligence work rebuked the FBI and Justice Department, essentially asking for the government to prove why its judges should believe what they submit.
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The FBI is facing more blowback over its surveillance of former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page. This time, the criticism comes from the secretive court that oversees foreign intelligence surveillance. It’s accusing the FBI of misleading the court when seeking approval for surveillance on Page. We’re joined now by NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.
Welcome back to the studio.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Thank you.
CORNISH: What did the court have to say in this order today?
LUCAS: Well, first off, it’s incredibly rare to hear anything from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and this is the court that basically signs off on surveillance of Americans for intelligence surveillance purposes. It operates very much behind closed doors, so any public order is really a big deal. And in this case, we’re talking about a four-page order from the court’s chief judge. Her name is Rosemary Collyer, and she has some pretty sharp criticism for the FBI over its applications for surveillance on Page. She says the court makes its decisions based on facts submitted by the FBI. And in the case of Page, she says the FBI misled the court. It withheld information. Its applications were riddled with errors.
The bureau, she says, has a duty to be fully forthcoming with the court. And in Page’s case, the FBI’s actions were antithetical, she says, to that duty. In fact, it’s handling calls into question information in other FBI applications is what the chief judge says. So she’s ordering the government to say what it has done so far and what it plans to do to ensure that this does not happen again, and she’s given the government a January 10 deadline to do so.
CORNISH: Why is this all happening now?
LUCAS: So remember. The Justice Department’s inspector general released his big report on the early stages of the Russia investigation last week. A big part of that looked at the FBI surveillance of Page, and the inspector general documented 17 significant errors or omissions in the FBI’s applications for surveillance on Page. The FBI, for example, did not inform Justice Department lawyers who oversee this whole process of information that undercut the case for surveillance on Page. A few days later, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the inspector general’s report.
Republicans and Democrats right now, of course, don’t agree on a whole lot. One thing that they did agree on in this hearing, though – people on both sides of the aisle – was the need to look at possible changes to the process for getting court’s – the court’s approval for foreign intelligence surveillance.
CORNISH: So you have the inspector general’s report and then criticism from lawmakers and now word from the FISA court itself. Are we likely to see changes in the law?
LUCAS: You know, it’s hard to say right now. It is still very early in this process. The inspector general’s report just came out last week. But certainly, advocates for change are eager to seize on this opportunity right now. The American Civil Liberties Union said that Congress has to radically reform this process to increase accountability. They say that the whole process for getting surveillance from this court as it stands right now is really ripe for abuse. But national security folks say that, you know, this surveillance power is critical for the FBI. It’s critical in both counterintelligence and counterterrorism cases.
But nobody is defending the errors and mistakes that were made in the case of Carter Page and documented in the inspector general’s report. FBI director Christopher Wray said that he accepts the inspector general’s findings. Wray says he’s already vowed to make changes to how the FBI handles its applications for this kind of surveillance in order to make sure that the information that the FBI is providing the court is completely accurate and is complete. There has been rumbling, of course, from the Hill, as I said earlier, to make changes. But it really is too early at this point to say whether that will reach the critical mass to actually get something done.
CORNISH: That’s NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.
LUCAS: Thank you.
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