Late last week, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, repeated his public observations that members of the intelligence community — particularly the CIA, the NSA and the intelligence division of the FBI — are not trustworthy with the nation's intelligence secrets. Because he has a security clearance at the "top secret" level and knows how others who have access to secrets have used and abused them, his allegations are extraordinary.
He pointed to the high-ranking members of the Obama administration who engaged in unmasking the names of some people whose communications had been captured by the country's domestic spies and the revelation of those names for political purposes. The most notable victim of this lawlessness is retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump's former national security adviser, a transcript of whose surveilled conversation with then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak found its way into print in The Washington Post.
During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years, captured communications — digital recordings of telephone conversations and copies of emails and text messages — did not bear the names of those who sent or received them. Those names were stored in a secret file. The revelation of those names is called unmasking.
Nunes also condemned the overt pro-Hillary Clinton bias and anti-Trump prejudice manifested by former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director James Comey and their agents in the field, some of whose texts and emails we have seen. The secrets that he argued were used for political purposes had been obtained by the National Security Agency pursuant to warrants issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Yet Nunes voted to enhance federal bulk surveillance powers.
Bulk surveillance — which is prohibited by the Constitution — is the acquisition of digital versions of telephone, email and text communications based not on suspicion or probable cause but rather on geography or customer status. As I have written before, one publicly available bulk surveillance warrant was for all Verizon customers in the United States; that's 115 million people, many of whom have more than one phone and at least one computer. And it is surveillance of Americans, not foreigners as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act contemplates.
How did this happen?
It happened in the dark. The NSA has persuaded the FISC, which meets in secret and only hears the government's arguments, to permit it to spy on any American it wishes on the theory that all Americans know someone who knows someone else who knows someone who could have spoken to a foreign person working for a foreign government that could wish us ill.