Previously available only in heavily redacted form, The Intercept has recently, well, intercepted the original document from 2013 that outlines the FBI’s protocols for spying on members of the media.
The classified rules, obtained by The Intercept and dating from 2013, govern the FBI’s use of National Security Letters, which allow the bureau to obtain information about journalists’ calls without going to a judge or informing the news organization being targeted. They have previously been released only in heavily redacted form.
Media advocates said the documents 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 rules stipulate that obtaining a journalist’s records with a National Security Letter (or NSL) requires the sign-off of the FBI’s general counsel and the executive assistant director of the bureau’s National Security Branch, in addition to the regular chain of approval. 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.
“These supposed rules are incredibly weak and almost nonexistent — as long as they have that second sign-off they’re basically good to go,” said Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has sued the Justice Department for the release of these rules. “The FBI is entirely able to go after journalists and with only one extra hoop they have to jump through.”
Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that the “use of NSLs as a way around the protections in the guidelines is a serious concern for news organizations.”
Last week, the Reporters Committee filed a brief in support of the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s lawsuit for the FBI’s NSL rules and other documents on behalf of 37 news organizations including The Intercept’s publisher, First Look Media. (First Look also provides funding to both the Reporters Committee and the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and several Intercept staffers serve on the foundation’s board.)
Seeing the rules in their un-censored form, Timm, of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said that the FBI should not have kept them classified.
“Redacting the fact that they need a little extra sign-off from supervisors doesn’t come close to protecting state secrets,” he said.
The full document can be seen at https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2934087/DIOG-Appendix-Media-NSLs.pdf