If you've watched the current impeachment proceedings with something beyond a passing interest, you might have heard the controversy over Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) secretly obtaining and then releasing phone records of political rival Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and journalist John Solomon.
Critics say such an alleged invasion of citizens' privacy and rights for political purposes is beyond the pale.
But Democrats argue that Schiff didn't really target Nunes or Solomon in his information dragnet. He says their calls were merely picked up incidentally because they spoke to two people who are targets: the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani or Lev Parnas, a figure charged with violating campaign finance violations.
However, Schiff's controversial release of information naming Nunes and Solomon provides a window into how the FBI secretly operates to obtain information on Americans for whom they have no explicit permission to wiretap or monitor.
Believe it or now, intelligence agencies can use one legal wiretap to monitor as many as 25,000 people for which there was no wiretap justification.
The following is an excerpt from my reporting in February 2019 on Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson that explains this phenomenon.
Through a single warrant, government agents can capture phone calls, texts, emails and bank records from people “two hops" away. That means all of the suspected spy’s direct contacts— “one hop” —and everybody who contacts those people or even visits their Facebook pages or websites—two hops.
In this way, one analysis found intel agencies can use one legal wiretap to access to 25,000 people’s phones. Consider at least a half dozen Trump officials were caught in the FBI surveillance dragnet, according to news reports: campaign chair Manafort, multiple “transition officials” including Lt. General Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner, and adviser Carter Page— who was wiretapped over and over though never charged with anything.
Sidney Powell (former prosecutor and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn's attorney): And what most people don't understand is, they don't just get everything they want against Carter Page, they get everything they want against every person who communicated with Carter Page, and against every person who communicated with that person. So it goes out what's called two hops.
Sharyl: And that would allow them to find intelligence from someone nowhere near the original center that they went to the FISA Court about?
Sidney Powell: Exactly. They could have all kinds of banking records and personal information on tens of thousands of people by virtue of those FISA applications.
Sharyl: —including Trump who was known to be one or two hops away from surveilled targets.
On top of that, at least four key anti-Trump figures have admitted in testimony and interviews accessing sensitive, protected intelligence of US citizens—including Trump associates—under the Obama administration. All say they were guarding national security, had no political motives, and didn’t leak the information. As the 2016 campaign peaked, Obama official Samantha Power’s name was on hundreds of attempts to reveal the identities of Americans caught up in secretly-gathered intelligence. Obama adviser Susan Rice also took part. And Obama officials Sally Yates and James Clapper admit having reviewed intel gathered on US political figures.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) : Did either of you ever review classified documents in which Mr. Trump, his associates or members of Congress had been unmasked?
Clapper: Well, yes.
Sharyl: Do you think Democrats and Republicans alike have, in your view, abdicated responsibility when it comes to oversight of our intelligence community?
Liz Hempowicz: Yeah, yeah, I think so. I don't think this is a problem with one party.
Liz Hempowicz is director of public policy at the watchdog Project on Government Oversight. She blames Congress for doing a poor job watching over the work of the government’s spies.
Liz Hempowicz: I think as a body, Congress has kind of been very comfortable giving the intelligence community a wide deference, and I don't think the intelligence community has earned that.
Sharyl: In short, why do you think it is that Congress, members of both parties, wouldn't be taking a harder look at the alleged surveillance abuses?
Liz Hempowicz: Well I think it's a difficult issue to conduct oversight over, and I think once you get pushback from the intelligence communities and they wave around words like "national security" and "security threat," I think it becomes a more difficult area for members of Congress to kind of use some of their political capital.
Hempowicz adds that alleged surveillance abuses aren’t new. Long before the Trump era, with special counsel Mueller heading up the FBI, US political figures were swept up in wiretaps, the contents improperly leaked to the media California Congresswoman Jane Harman in 2009and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich in 2011.
In 2013, Director of National Intelligence Clapper denied mass spying on Americans.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon): Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
Clapper: No sir.
But when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the opposite, Clapper apologized and said he’d been confused by the question. In 2014, the CIA got caught spying on Senate staffers, though CIA Director John Brennan had explicitly denied it. He—too— then apologized.
And the government has spied on journalists: James Rosen, then of Fox News—now with Sinclair, The Associated Press, and, as I allege in a federal lawsuit, on my work as an investigative correspondent at CBS News.
Finally, in 2016, there was a striking election year uptick in government agents combing through a sensitive NSA database of intel on innocent US citizens.
In 2013, there were 9,500 searches involving 198 Americans. By 2016, that number escalated to 30,355 searches of 5,288 Americans.
Which brings us back to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or FISA admonishment in October 2016. Judge Collyer also slammed the FBI for a major violation: giving raw intelligence about Americans to unnamed third party contractors.
Sharyl: And the names of these three contractors are blacked out?
Sidney Powell: They're blacked out. You cannot tell from the decision who they are. But the American people need to be jumping up and down, demanding to know the answers to that.
Sharyl: Because it would tell us what?
Sidney Powell: Well it's going to tell us who was given special privileges by James Comey to go in and get all this information. It will tell us who's behind the unmaskings.
The court said the FBI’s failures had been “the focus ofconcerns since 2014.” All of that contradicts assurances from FBI Director Comey “Nobody gets to see FISA information of any kind unless they've had the appropriate training and have the appropriate oversight.”
Former FBI Director Comey’s successor Christopher Wray has made similar claims.
Wray: No evidence of any kind of abuse.
In the end, Powell argues that neither the FBI nor Special Counsel Mueller— as ex-FBI Director —can fairly investigate matters that intersect with allegations about their own agencies and colleagues.
Sharyl: Assuming for the sake of argument that what you say is correct, I think people might say, "But maybe there was no premise for the Russia investigation. But so many people surrounding Trump, and so many people who've been looked at have either pled guilty or been found to have done something else in the past. Doesn't that validify the investigation that was done?"
Sidney Powell: Absolutely not. Not unless we're going to revert to the practice of Russia itself, and the KGB agent who said, "Find me the man and I'll find the crime to pin on him."
Hempowicz has a slightly different take— that Mueller’s probe is important and so far has proven fair. But she agrees that someone should also be unraveling any surveillance abuses.
Sharyl: How would you describe, in a nutshell, why this is important?
Liz Hempowicz: I don't think the intelligence community has accurately shown that there are benefits of this pervasive surveillance of American citizens. I just haven't seen them kind of show their work like a fourth grader would have to do in math to prove that they've gotten the right answer.
After issuing her blistering comments in 2016, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge required the Justice Department to devise new rules to better protect Americans’ privacy rights. The court approved a proposal made by the Trump Justice Department in March 2017.
Watch the full Full Measure report by clicking the link below: