U.S. intelligence won’t answer if it spies on American journalists

ODNI has rejected a FOIA request from Just the News seeking transparency on spy agency monitoring of journalists.

Updated: August 31, 2020 - 7:37pm

The Office of Director of National Intelligence is refusing to say whether U.S. spy agencies monitor American journalists' overseas phone calls or records that were collected by the National Security Agency, saying revealing the answer could jeopardize its tactics.

The ODNI's answer came late last week in response to a Just the News request under the Freedom of Information Act for any records since 2015 that "show the frequency by which professional journalists' phone records were searched via the NSA database and any journalists' overseas conversations were unmasked."

"ODNI can neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence of the requested records," the agency wrote in a letter to Just the News. "The fact of the existence or non-existence of the requested records is itself currently and properly classified, and could reveal intelligence sources and methods information that is protected from disclosure pursuant to Section 102A(i)(l) of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, 50 U.S.C. § 3024(i)(l)."

Just the News is considering appealing the decision and going to court.

It is the second such rejection by ODNI in recent weeks for FOIA requests designed to illuminate just how far-reaching U.S. intelligence community monitoring of American citizens has become.

The Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability (PPSA), a nonprofit where former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) works as a senior adviser, was rejected recently for records it sought on whether U.S. intelligence has been surveilling past and current U.S. senators and House members.
 
Specifically, the group asked ODNI whether the spy agencies it supervises unmasked the identities of current and past lawmakers known to have been caught up in foreign surveillance, and whether the names of these members were searched through what is known as the "upstream" phone database. The request covered a bipartisan group of 48 current and former lawmakers and their potential surveillance from Jan. 1, 2008 to Jan. 15, 2020.
 
ODNI summarily denied the FOIA with what is known as a "Glomar response," saying confirming or denying such surveillance "could reveal sources and methods information."

There is at least one documented instance of executive branch spying on Congress in the last decade.

The CIA inspector general concluded in 2014 that CIA officers wrongly spied on Senate Intelligence Committee investigators preparing a report on the agency's terrorist interrogation program.

On Friday, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) asked U.S spy agencies if they have spied on lawmakers in the last decade, based on allegations in a recent book by journalist Barton Gellman.

In addition, Eshoo asked, "Do technical safeguards exist to prevent IC employees and contractors from querying databases, without express legal authorization or as part of a court-approved investigation, for information about any Member of Congress, federal judge, Supreme Court justice, or any other employee of the legislative or judicial branches of the federal government?”

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