The Government Spied on Me. You Could Be Next.

The Government Spied on Me. You Could Be Next.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
The Government Spied on Me. You Could Be Next.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
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It was bad enough when the Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder engaged in spying on journalist James Rosen (and even spied on his parents' phone records). And the same cast of characters secretly spied on Associated Press reporters -- also in the name of tracking down government leakers.

Amid those discoveries were NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about massive government spying on the citizenry, which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had denied under oath. As the dominos began to fall, Holder expressed some regret, particularly as it applied to the intrusion upon journalists, who until the Obama administration had been considered largely off limits for the government's intel dragnet.

Then there's my case.

During the same period, intelligence sources alerted me that the government was spying on my electronic devices while I was an investigative reporter at CBS News. I was often working with whistleblowers inside the administration: honest people willing to expose bad things going on inside the federal government.

The nature of the government’s surveillance on me and my family is forensically proven and not subject to legitimate question. Yet, unlike with the discoveries about James Rosen and AP, the government has yet to issue its mea culpa. And there's a reason.

As bad as they were, the other known instances of journalists being spied upon happened under cover of court orders, albeit ones issued in secrecy. But the government spying on me was not done under the authority of a court warrant. That’s why my case is even more dangerous than the others. It implies that the scope of government improperly turning its intel tools on its own citizens, including journalists and political enemies, could be far more extensive than anyone realizes.

How do I know there was no warrant in my case? Not only did inside sources tell me this, but it was also confirmed to me by the Department of Justice inspector general. With no warrant, it means I was perhaps caught up in so-called "incidental" spying upon other figures. Intel sources have told me that when aggressive government agents want to listen in on somebody but know they cannot justify a warrant, they simply find a target around that person and capture their communications in the incidental spying.

I call it reverse-engineering a target. It's easy.

You see, under a policy that was secret at the time, intel officials expanded their authority under the name of national security and permitted government agents to capture communications of not just a supposedly legitimate national security target but also everybody communicating with that target. And everybody communicating with those people. And, believe it or not, everybody communicating with those people.

In other words, the government justified expanding its surveillance tool box to obtain bank records, emails, private photos, text messages, internet records, phone calls -- you name it -- of people two and three "hops" away from an original target: people who had neither met nor even communicated with the actual target.

Perhaps the surveillance in my case was farmed out to a team overseas where the rulebook opens up when it comes to what U.S. intelligence officers are allowed to do. As a prescient internal email from a government contractor, Stratfor, indicated some years back, I certainly wasn't the only targeted journalist. I simply was one lucky enough to have sources who alerted me and helped obtain the proof. Which brings us to the 2016 shenanigans.

Long before the 2016 presidential campaign, confidential sources had alerted me to longstanding misuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court system and the erosion of protections when it came obtaining permission for wiretaps and other surveillance methods. So, the election debacle came of no surprise. I saw it as an extension of years of improper manipulation. It now appears to me as though the effort to target those surrounding Donald Trump had more to do with intel officials' concern that a President Trump  might dig into these longstanding surveillance abuses with the help of none other than Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

It was no secret in the intel community that Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama, was not only aware of long-standing intel agency surveillance excesses, but was also planning to clean house. In the end, Flynn was unable to do the job because he got wrapped up in the Trump-Russia allegations. Funny, that.

In a more perfect union, honest players at the DoJ would look at the forensics in my case, be horrified that it happened, and make moves to make amends and identify the players responsible. Apparently, coming clean in that way would open a can of worms – one I suspect is larger than anything we've heard discussed to date.

So since the DoJ won't do its job, I'm left to self-fund my own pursuit of justice in civil court. As I have learned in the process, the fight is much bigger than my own. If the government isn't held responsible for its unwarranted intrusions in my case, according to my lawyers and a dissenting appellate just who sided with us, the government will have a precedent that provides it with a free pass to spy on any U.S. citizen for any reason with no fear of punishment.

My court fight is clearly an uphill battle. The Department of Justice has unlimited tax dollars to spend obstructing and fighting my case, which is now in its fourth year. And when it comes to the information needed to identify the responsible federal agents by name, well, the government holds all the cards and isn't tipping its hand. DoJ has blocked us at every turn in our attempts to obtain "discovery" from government agencies.

Not a single page has been turned over. In a circular justification that only makes sense in the swampy recesses of Washington, D.C., a court recently determined that I am to blame for not being able to shake loose the information from the government to identify the John Doe federal agents who surveilled me.

My appeal of this finding continues and, if we do not prevail, we will continue to the next step. Understandably, most Americans wouldn’t know it, but my court challenge is crucial to preserving our longstanding notions of personal freedom, press freedom and privacy. 

Sharyl Attkisson is a five-time Emmy Award winner, recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting, and host of TV’s “Full Measure.”

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