It ain’t easy getting a FISA warrant: I was an FBI agent and should know

Asha Rangappa writes: In his latest round of twiplash, President Trump on Saturday leveled a very serious accusation: that President Obama had personally ordered the “tapping” of telephone lines in Trump Tower in the months leading up to the November 2016 election. His tweets (scarily) reveal more about what he believes the office of the President is capable of than the reality of what the law allows. As someone who obtained FISA warrants while conducting counterintelligence investigations for the FBI, I can attest to the fact that they not only don’t involve the White House, but the process includes too many layers of approval to be granted without strong evidence.

There are two ways to obtain a wiretap – also known as electronic surveillance – on U.S. persons (citizens and permanent residents), and both include the courts. For criminal investigations, the FBI can seek a warrant under Title III of the U.S. criminal code by showing a federal court that there is probable cause to believe the target has engaged, or is engaging in, criminal activity. This is a fairly high standard because of a strong presumption in favor of our Fourth Amendment right to privacy, and requires a showing that less intrusive means of obtaining the same information aren’t feasible.

The standard for electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes, though, is a little lower. This is because when it comes to national security, as opposed to criminal prosecutions, our Fourth Amendment rights are balanced against the government’s interest in protecting the country. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows the FBI to get a warrant from a secret court, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), to conduct electronic surveillance on U.S. persons if they can show probable cause that the target is an “agent of a foreign power” who is “knowingly engag[ing]…in clandestine intelligence activities.” In other words, the government has to show that the target might be spying for a foreign government or organization. [Continue reading…]

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