US Government Using Secretive FISA Rules to Spy on Journalists

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Documents recently obtained by the Freedom of the Press Foundation reveal troubling facts about how the government is secretly using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to spy on journalists. The documents were released as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and Columbia University’s Knights First Amendment Institute. These newly declassified memos confirm suspicions long held by civil liberties advocates that the government is using and abusing FISA court orders to conduct intrusive surveillance on reporters they deem as “foreign agents” and on those reporters’ contacts.

By using FISA, the Department of Justice circumvents traditional court systems that have long protected journalists from invasive and illegal spying practices.

Stringent rules for obtaining court orders, subpoenas, and warrants against journalists have been thrown aside in an effort to target members of the media. The absence of clear guidelines to determine whether a journalist is an agent of a foreign power leads to potential government abuses of journalists’ civil rights.

Memos made public through the FOIA request reveal that it is highly likely that both the Trump and Obama administrations have spied on journalists they considered “foreign agents” and anyone with whom they may have been in contact.  By using these flimsy rules government agencies have been allowed to intercept any and all communications that journalists in the US and abroad are having with individuals overseas.  These communications are arbitrarily being swept up as “foreign intelligence’ information on “foreign affairs.” Freedom of the Press is essential to our democracy and is being threatened by these backdoor practices of the government.

As of November 2018, there appears to have been no corporate media coverage of this story.


Cora Currier, “Government Can Spy on Journalists in the U.S. Using Invasive Foreign Intelligence Process,” The Intercept, September 17, 2018,

Jessica Corbett, “The US Government’s Secret Rules for Spying on Journalists are ‘Terrifying,’” Mint Press News, September 18, 2018,

Student Researcher: Andrea Blado (Sonoma State)

Faculty Evaluator: Brent Mortensen (Healdsburg High School)