The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) top official admitted this week that his agency sometimes bypasses the courts and pries into personal communications without a warrant.
Director James Comey’s admission was prompted after he first insisted that the FBI never, ever conducts electronic surveillance without a court order.
During an interview with the CBS program “60 Minutes,” Comey was asked if his agents ever probed emails and other communications without a judge first signing off.
“No,” Comey said. “We don’t do electronic surveillance without a court order.”
He insisted “we cannot read your emails or listen to your calls without going to a federal judge, making a showing of probable cause that you are a terrorist, an agent of a foreign power, or a serious criminal of some sort, and get permission for a limited period of time to intercept those communications. It is an extremely burdensome process. And I like it that way.”
Within days of giving that interview, the director amended his statement during a talk at the Brookings Institution. He said: “It remains true in the over-, over- overwhelming number of our cases—we have court authority to collect the content of emails or telephones. But there are exceptions to the warrant requirement.”
National Journal’s Dustin Volz noted that Comey gave two examples of such exceptions: “When consent is obtained, and during surveillance of foreign suspects under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (pdf). That law allows for ‘incidental’ collection of Americans that electronically communicate with the foreign target, a practice that privacy advocates, including Sen. Ron Wyden, have slammed as a warrantless ‘backdoor search’ loophole that infringes on civil liberties.”
In his Brookings speech, Comey emphasized that electronic data shouldn’t be “beyond the law,” and he expressed caution about the heightened concern over privacy resulting from the “post-Snowden wind.”