Hidden beneath the controversy stirred up last week by the publication of a book called “Fire and Fury,” a highly critical insider’s view of the Trump White House that the president has not only denounced on national television but also tried to prevent from being published and distributed, are the efforts of the Trump administration and congressional leadership to bypass the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
Here is the back story.
After the excesses of the Watergate era, during which the Nixon administration used the FBI and the CIA unlawfully to spy without warrants on the president’s real and imagined domestic political opponents, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA prohibited all domestic surveillance except that which is pursuant to warrants signed by federal judges.
The Fourth Amendment — which guarantees privacy in our persons, houses, papers and effects — permits the government to invade that privacy only when a judge has signed a warrant that authorizes surveillance, a search or a seizure. And judges may only issue warrants when they have found probable cause to believe that the government surveillance or invasion of the target’s privacy will produce evidence of criminal behavior. The Fourth Amendment further requires that the judicial warrant describe specifically the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized.
All these requirements are in the amendment so as to prevent any court from issuing general warrants. Before the Constitution, general warrants were issued by British courts that met in secret in London. They were not issued based on probable cause of crime but issued based on the government’s wish to invade the privacy of all Americans living in the Colonies to find the more rebellious among them. This was the king and Parliament’s version of protecting national security.
General warrants did not describe the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized. They authorized the bearer — usually a British soldier physically located in the Colonies — to search where he wished and seize whatever he found.
FISA did not interfere with the standard understanding or use of the Fourth Amendment by the government and the courts. But it did add another way for the government to invade privacy when its wish is to surveil people for national security purposes — a return to general warrants — as opposed to solely gathering evidence of crimes.
The FISA-created procedure, enacted in defiance of the Fourth Amendment — which makes no distinction between government evidence gathering and government intelligence gathering — permits a secret court in Washington to issue general warrants based on the government’s need to gather intelligence about national security from foreigners among us. It pretends that the standard is probable cause of foreign agency, but this has now morphed into the issuance of general warrants whenever the government wants them.
Since 1977, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has issued well over 99 percent of the warrants that the government has requested. And these warrants do not specifically describe the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized. A typical FISC-issued warrant authorizes government surveillance on all landlines, mobile devices and desktop computers in a given area or ZIP code. One infamous FISC-issued search warrant permitted the feds to surveil all Verizon customers in the U.S. — in excess of 115 million people — without any evidence of crime or even suspicion about any of them.
Now back to the Trump administration’s work below the radar. Even in the fresh aftermath of 9/11, when the government’s respect for constitutional norms was at a lamentably low point, the government interpreted the Fourth Amendment as requiring the government to separate its intelligence functions from its law enforcement work. The government recognized that its trigger for mass surveillance — namely, looking for a foreign agent among the populace — was a far lower standard than probable cause of crime, which is what the Fourth Amendment requires.
Today, the federal government’s computers are permanently connected to the mainframes of all telecoms and computer service providers in America, so the spying is in real time. Today, the federal government employs more than 60,000 domestic spies — one spy for every 5,500 Americans. Today, if any of them come across evidence of crimes while listening to your telephone calls or reading your texts or emails ostensibly for intelligence purposes, there is little they can do about it.
Now, hidden beneath the “Fire and Fury” controversy is the muffled sound of the Trump administration and Republican congressional leaders plotting the enactment of an addition to FISA that would permit the use of evidence of crimes in federal court even when it is discovered during mass surveillance authorized by general warrants.
If enacted, this radical, unconstitutional hole in the Fourth Amendment would bring the country full circle back to the government’s use of general warrants to harass and prosecute — general warrants so odious to our forebears that they took up arms against the king’s soldiers to be rid of them.