Newly leaked documents published by The Intercept expose just how easy it is for the FBI to spy on journalists using so-called National Security Letters (NSLs).
The classified rules, which had previously been released only in heavily redacted form, “show that the FBI imposes few constraints on itself when it bypasses the requirement to go to court and obtain subpoenas or search warrants before accessing journalists’ information,” The Intercept‘s Cora Currier wrote on Thursday.
According to the reporting, an attempt to access journalists’ call data with an NSL must be approved by the typical chain-of-command as well as the FBI’s general counsel and the executive assistant director of the agency’s National Security Branch.
“Generally speaking, there are a variety of FBI officials, including the agents in charge of field offices, who can sign off that an NSL is ‘relevant’ to a national security investigation,” Currier explained.
Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, an advocacy group which had petitioned for the release of these documents, calls Thursday’s revelations “quite disturbing, since the Justice Department spent two years trying to convince the public that it updated its ‘Media Guidelines’ to create a very high and restrictive bar for when and how they could spy on journalists using regular subpoenas and court orders. These leaked rules prove that the FBI and [Department of Justice or DOJ] can completely circumvent the Media Guidelines and just use an NSL in total secrecy.”
The Intercept added: “There is an extra step under the rules if the NSL targets a journalist in order ‘to identify confidential news media sources.’ In that case, the general counsel and the executive assistant director must first consult with the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division.”