The Big Picture on the Carter Page FISA

With all the discussion of the FISA warrants, we must avoid missing the forest for the trees.  Since the release last Saturday of the (highly redacted) FISA application that targeted Carter Page, and the subsequent three renewal applications, there has been no lack of analysis of the unredacted details.  (Mark Penn's analysis is, for my money, one of the most cogent.)  In what follows, I intend to take more of a "big picture" approach, as well as focusing on issues that haven't received a great deal of attention but may in the future.

One aspect of the application that came as no surprise to all who have followed this FISA-gate affair is that the role of the "dossier" – the collaborative effort produced by the British ex-spook Christopher Steele, Fusion GPS (Glenn Simpson, Nellie Ohr, and possibly others), and the Hillary campaign – is everywhere apparent.  While the central role of the dossier comes as no surprise – after all, Andrew McCabe, the FBI's disgraced former deputy director and (during the Comey-Wray interregnum) acting director, testified to the House that the dossier was "crucial" to the FISA – the overall audacity exhibited in the application is breathtaking.

The dossier itself is in the nature of a Big Lie – sensational, lacking in documented sourcing, utterly unverified and unverifiable.  To present the contents of such a document (really a collection of memos) to any court as fact is audacious enough in itself.  However, authors of the application took two remarkable steps to support the Big Lie of the dossier.

First, they used the record of Page's three years of cooperation with the FBI as an FBI informant in New York to support the contention that Page was an agent of a foreign power who was knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activity that might have involved the violation of criminal statues of the United States (cf. [b][2][A][B] at the above link).  That is audacious.

The second way the authors of the application sought to support the Big Lie of the dossier was to cite tendentious opinion articles in U.S. publications to support the idea that the Trump campaign was working "behind the scenes" to shape its Russia policies in such a way as to conform to the desires of the Putin regime – attributing this, on no stated evidence, to the supposed influence of Carter Page.  At least one of these articles was sourced to Christopher Steele, although that fact appears not to have been revealed to the FISA Court (FISC).  Again, this is a remarkable degree of audacity.

But what about the four separate judges who signed off on either the original application or the several renewal applications?  Do they not have some responsibility for this really shocking abuse of the FISA regime – a regime that was designed to safeguard the Fourth Amendment rights of U.S. citizens?  Should they not have subjected the applications to searching scrutiny and questioned what appear to be obvious flaws?  To his great credit, Andy McCarthy of NRO raised precisely this issue in his Fox News interview.

The problem lies, I believe, in the nature of the FISA regime.  The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 was intended to provide for oversight of the government's surveillance activity, physical and electronic, to prevent perceived abuses of government powers in the name of national security, while allowing for necessary secrecy.  The act itself was largely written in collaboration between Congress and the Justice Department.  The result was remarkable, not to say unprecedented.  What FISA did, in effect, by creating the FISC to pass on applications for surveillance was to transform Article III judges into government bureaucrats for purposes of FISA.  Here's what I mean.

Under Article III of the Constitution, the "judicial power" is to be used to decide cases and controversies – which, in our system, are conducted in adversarial proceedings: all parties to a dispute get to present their points of view in open court.  But under the FISA regime, there is no case or controversy, nor is a FISC judge's role that of a devil's advocate.  The judge hears only the government's side of things, and not only are the government's representatives advocates, but, by the very nature of their official duties, they are before the FISC as subject matter experts in their own right.

The inevitable result is that the judges who serve on the FISC may exhibit some or all of the ordinary human weaknesses that the adversarial system is designed to guard against.  A judge may lack the necessary knowledge to truly understand what's being placed before him, may exhibit undue deference to "experts," may even be biased against the target or have a tendency to go along to get along.  But since there is no true case or controversy presented to the FISC and there is only a limited possibility for appeal – only if a decision should go against the government can there be an appeal, since the target of the FISA warrant is not represented before the FISC – as long as the judge sides with the government, no one will be the wiser.  As long as the FISC judge issues the warrant, no one will complain, no one will appeal, there will be no real oversight of the court's decisions.  Humanly speaking, this is a system that was ripe for politically motivated exploitation.  Only the principled actions of Admiral Mike Rogers at the NSA saved the day.

In saying this, I have no intention to impugn the overall integrity of federal judges, but they are human, too, and when the safeguards of the adversarial system and the appellate process are effectively removed, their human weaknesses may be exploited.  A simple example will perhaps suffice.

The Carter Page FISA application, drawing on the dossier, states that Carter Page had "secret" meetings with Russians, whom the U.S. government regards as bad guys.  To most people, that may appear to be an unremarkable statement, one not requiring challenge.  But recall that under FISA, for a U.S. person (USPER) to be classified as an "agent of a foreign power," that USPER must be shown to engage in clandestine intelligence activity for or on behalf of a foreign power, and that activity must at least possibly involve violations of U.S. criminal statutes.  So what's a "secret meeting" – as opposed, for example, to a merely "private" meeting?  Is any meeting not conducted on a street corner a "secret" meeting?  Does a "private" meeting become a "secret" meeting simply because the government disapproves of the person you're meeting?  Should we reasonably expect a FISC judge to pounce on these ambiguities, or is it more likely that he will miss them?

For me, with over twenty years of counterintelligence experience, a "secret" meeting would be a meeting that a person attempts to conceal from the knowledge of others.  So, for example, we might ask whether the person in question took measures to detect or elude surveillance by intelligence services – yes, the U.S. does maintain intelligence personnel in Moscow.  If he did, then we might plausibly argue to the FISC that the meeting was a "secret" meeting.  But that's not what we see in this FISA application.  Without the support of facts such as I've just laid out, the statement that Carter Page engaged in "secret" meetings is merely tendentious and prejudicial.  This is a built in danger for FISC proceedings.

Am I being too hard on the FBI?  Consider: the NSA audit of "702" searches that was presented to the chief judge of the FISC revealed that 85% of the searches were unauthorized and almost certainly were undertaken to ultimately benefit the Hillary Clinton campaign and to undermine the Trump campaign.  That particular abuse can't be laid at the door of the FISC, but clearly, if this eye-opening level of abuse occurred in one aspect of the FISA regime, we shouldn't be surprised if the FBI were to play fast and loose when presenting "facts" to the FISC.

From the growing outcry over these revelations, it seems likely that the public will not be satisfied with the heavily redacted version of the application that we now have.  Demands for more transparency will likely grow, and that can lead only to an overdue and healthy public discussion of the serious issues – for national security as well as private privacy – that are involved in FISA.  Interestingly, in an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Devin Nunes back in February stated that "we" (presumably the House Intelligence Committee) had been "grappling" with the idea of seeking to involve chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Roberts in a discussion of some of the issues involved in FISA.  In my understanding, Chief Justice Roberts doesn't exactly supervise the FISC, but he does appoint the FISC judges and would be the logical source for advice on the operation – and even the nature – of the FISC.

There are complex constitutional problems involved in all this, not least because of the anomalous nature of the FISC, but I have to believe that such a development would be a healthy one.

Mark Wauck is a retired FBI agent who blogs on religion, philosophy, and FISA at meaning in history.

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