On Saturday night, something unprecedented happened: 412 pages of FISA applications were released to the public for the first time in history. The United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was established in 1978, and it is perhaps the most secretive court in the world. It was created to oversee requests for surveillance warrants against alleged foreign spies inside the United States, and the NSA and FBI submit the vast majority of these applications. Because the information underlying the application is so secretive, very little is publicly known about how FISA really works.
If you’re wondering how we gained access to these applications, you can thank the Freedom of Information Act. In a normal political world, we would never have the opportunity to see these documents, but the clown car of madness piloted by Devin Nunes and his lackeys in the House of Representatives revealed enough about these Carter Page FISA applications to the public that lawyer Mark Zaid, journalist Brad Heath and the James Madison Project were able to successfully convince a judge that enough information about the most secretive court in America was already revealed by our (Republican) public representatives, that the public had a right to see the rest of the redacted document.
You should be skeptical of the vast majority of folks acting like they know what they’re talking about from a legal perspective on these applications. To say that this is arcane law is an understatement. Not to mention, it’s heavily redacted, so it’s impossible to evaluate any overall narrative coming out of it. That said, there is enough information available where some arguments from team Trump can be wholly repudiated (like the supposed Democratic witch hunt—four Republican judges approved these FISA applications). This is where I will cede my time to folks who actually understand this court and can explain it in a cogent, non-partisan manner.
First up, the former head of intelligence law at the NSA, April Doss.
Next is cybersecurity researcher Matt Tait, who was approached by Republican operative Peter W. Smith in his search for Hillary's deleted e-mails. Smith had reached out to Kremlin-linked hackers and he asked Tait to verify the veracity of their claims. Don't let Tait's (hilarious) Twitter handle fool you, he is one of the small group of people alive with the technical ability to understand this document. Doss told you why it's important, and Tait is here to tell you what is important.
Lastly, I'll bring a staunch conservative into this mess just to prove that this is not a partisan column, despite my very clear bias against team Trump. Julian Sanchez is a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and he has spent his professional life covering the intersection of privacy, technology and politics. Here are his two cents on the FISA application.
So to recap: the only concrete takeaways that we have from this are that Christopher Steele was not the only source used to justify surveillance of Carter Page’s shadiness, and Devin Nunes’ memo was simply a gigantic pile of outright lies and falsehoods—known lies and falsehoods, as Nunes saw the all 412 unredacted pages of this document. Other than that, there are far too many redactions to get a sense of the full picture of Carter Page’s problems, but we can assume that each FISA application bore new fruit, as each application is longer than the previous one.
President Trump predictably spun this into his “witch hunt” narrative, but there’s one fact that should be communicated far more often in mainstream media over Trump’s claims: he can declassify whatever he wants whenever he wants. He’s the president. If Trump really believes that this FISA application was “classified to cover up misconduct by the FBI and the Justice Department in misleading the Court by using this Dossier in a dishonest way to gain a warrant to target the Trump Team,” then he can declassify the supposed misconduct and reveal the truth to everyone. The fact that Trump won’t do it tells you everything you need to know about whether those redactions help or hurt his case.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.