We’ve written before about how it appears that the DOJ/FBI and NSA have conducted surveillance on Americans almost entirely based on First Amendment-protected activities. Whenever that issue comes up, the Intelligence Community and its defenders insist no way, that they take the prohibition on surveillance over First Amendment protected activities seriously. Section 215 of the Patriot Act is rather explicit:
the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a designee of the Director (whose rank shall be no lower than Assistant Special Agent in Charge) may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution.
The statute prohibits the FBI from investigating law abiding Americans unless their own conduct fell outside of the First Amendment, regardless of the conduct of other people related to the investigation. I think most people, when they cite that statutory language, believe it means that Americans won’t be subjects of terrorism investigations for the First Amendment protected things they say or do. They would be wrong. Judge Bates’ alternate interpretation allows for Americans exercising only constitutional protected rights to nevertheless be investigated under section 215 so long as there’s an independent, constitutionally unprotected basis for the overarching terrorism investigation. The takeaway is, Americans are being investigated for their First Amendment protected activity, so long as someone’s else’s related conduct is not protected, even where the relationship between the American and the other party is too attenuated to support suspicion of aiding and abetting or conspiracy.
That is an immensely troubling interpretation of the law, one that appears to run counter to the plain wording of the law, as well as the basic concept of both the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution. No freaking wonder Judge Bates has been so adamant against having any sort of civil liberties advocate reviewing and challenging his decisions within the FISC.