PPSA Asks Federal Court to Order FBI to Stop Foot Dragging and Produce Documents on the Unmasking of Members of Congress
PPSA today announced that it is asking the District Court for the District of Columbia to force the FBI to produce two records about communications between government agencies and Members of Congress concerning their possible “unmasking” in secretly intercepted foreign conversations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
PPSA’s request to the court involves the practice of naming Americans – in this case, Members of the House and Senate – who are caught up in foreign surveillance summaries. In 2017, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said he had reason to believe his identify had been unmasked and that he had written to the FBI about it. Similar statements have been made by other Members of Congress of both parties.
The matter seemed to have been settled in October 2022 when Judge Rudolph Contreras of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia declared that “communications between the FBI and Congress are a degree removed from FISA-derived documents and which discuss congressional unmasking as a matter of legislative interest, policy, or oversight … the FBI must conduct a search for any ‘policy documents’ in its possession.”
The FBI had first refused to release these documents under a broad and untenable interpretation of the Glomar doctrine, under which the government asserts it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of such records for national security reasons. After Judge Contreras swept that excuse away, the FBI in October 2023 asserted that three FOIA exemptions allow it to withhold requested documents.
The FBI has gone from obfuscation to outright defiance of the plain text of the law. It still claims that releasing correspondence with Congress would, somehow, endanger intelligence sources and methods. It is time for the court to step in and issue a legal order the FBI cannot openly defy.
Thus PPSA’s cross motion for summary judgment knocks down the FBI’s rationale and asks Judge Contreras to order the FBI to produce all FBI records reflecting communications between the government and Members of Congress on their “unmasking.”
Earlier, the FBI had searched under a court order to find two relevant policy documents. These unreleased records include a four-page email between FBI employees and an FBI Intelligence Program Policy Guide. Significant portions of both documents are being withheld by the FBI because, the Bureau now asserts, of the three exemptions. It claims the disclosure can be withheld because it could implicate sources and methods, the records were created for law enforcement purposes, and because of confidentiality.
None of these excuses meet the laugh test for correspondence with Members of Congress. PPSA is optimistic the court will end the FBI’s two years of foot-dragging and order it to produce.