Did Brennan Admit to Using Reverse Targeting to Spy on the Trump Campaign?

Did Brennan Admit to Using Reverse Targeting to Spy on the Trump Campaign?
Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill on May 23, 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Jeff Carlson
News Analysis

Comments made by former CIA Director John Brennan in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow suggest that the CIA may have used a tactic known as “reverse targeting” to collect data on members of the Trump campaign.

In the Aug. 17 interview, Brennan discussed concerns about Russian contacts with U.S. citizens during the 2016 presidential election.

“I was very concerned and aware that the Russians were trying to leverage U.S. citizens in order to achieve their objectives in the presidential election,” Brennan said.

Despite Brennan’s apparent concerns, he admitted that these contacts may have been completely innocent—there was no proof that these same U.S. citizens had been successfully leveraged by Russian efforts. But that surveillance moved forward anyway, and may have occurred before and after the election.

From Brennan’s interview:
BRENNAN: When I left office on January 20th of 2017, I had unresolved questions in my mind about whether or not any of those U.S. persons were working in support of the Russian efforts.
MADDOW: And those were referred—those concerns about specific U.S. persons—to the FBI.
BRENNAN: We call it incidental collection in terms of CIA’s foreign intelligence collection authorities. Any time we would incidentally collect information on a U.S. person, we would hand that over to the FBI because they have the legal authority to do it. We would not pursue that type of investigative, you know, sort of leads. We would give it to the FBI.
So, we were picking things up that was of great relevance to the FBI, and we wanted to make sure that they were there—so they could piece it together with whatever they were collecting domestically here. That’s not how incidental collection is supposed to work. More importantly, the collection described by Brennan doesn’t sound incidental. The surveillance sounds targeted.

Unlike the surveillance of Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page, which used a traditional FISA warrant granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the surveillance being described by Brennan occurred under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Traditional FISA surveillance relates to electronic surveillance and physical searches of non-U.S. persons, facilities, or property inside the United States, while Section 702 surveillance allows for targeted surveillance of foreign individuals located outside the United States for the purpose of acquiring foreign intelligence information.
A “significant” purpose of the surveillance must be to obtain “foreign intelligence information” and U.S. citizens can’t be intentionally targeted. Provisions known as minimization procedures are intended to protect information “incidentally collected” on U.S. citizens in the course of foreign surveillance.

Unlike traditional FISA surveillance, Section 702 surveillance isn’t subject to individual FISA Court approvals.

Unfortunately, significant loopholes exist regarding data collection under Section 702. For example, the FBI can “search” collected information using terms that relate to U.S. citizens, and can do so without a warrant.

Reverse targeting is one technique specifically prohibited under Section 702. Reverse targeting relates to the targeting of a foreign individual, with the intent of capturing data on a U.S. citizen.

What Brennan discussed in the interview with Maddow sounds notably similar to reverse targeting. It also sounds eerily close to what the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), disclosed in March last year.

On March 22, 2017, after learning of surveillance on the Trump transition team, Nunes gave an impromptu press conference, where he made some startling comments:

“I have seen intelligence reports that clearly show the president-elect and his team were monitored and disseminated out in intelligence-reporting channels. Details about persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little apparent foreign-intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.

“From what I know right now, it looks like incidental collection. We don’t know exactly how that was picked up but we’re trying to get to the bottom of it.

“This appears to be all legally collected foreign intelligence under FISA, where there was incidental collection that then ended up in reporting channels and was widely disseminated. It’s official IC information. These were intelligence reports. It brings up a lot of concerns about whether things were properly minimized or not.”

And it wasn’t just the Section 702 information gathering. There appeared to have been a significant amount of coordination and cooperation between the FBI and CIA:
MADDOW: So, it’s an intelligence sharing operation between ...
BRENNAN: Right. We put together a Fusion Center at CIA that brought NSA and FBI officers together with CIA to make sure that those proverbial dots would be connected. It’s possible that Brennan was describing the multiagency task force referred to in a BBC article:

“Last April, the CIA director was shown intelligence that worried him. ... It was passed to the U.S. by an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic states. The CIA cannot act domestically against American citizens so a joint counterintelligence task force was created. The task force included six agencies or departments of government.”

It sounds like the legal envelope was being pushed in regard to the CIA’s domestic involvement and investigative pursuit. It also sounds like a coordinated effort to process and share the collected information that Brennan referred to during his interview.

More importantly, it sounds like the CIA may have used targeted collection of Section 702 data, skipped the minimization requirements, and fed the raw surveillance data directly to the FBI.

It would be helpful if the former CIA director would provide some clarification of his remarks.

What exactly, did he mean by, “Any time we would incidentally collect information on a U.S. person, we would hand that over to the FBI because they have the legal authority to do it”?

Was this targeted Section 702 surveillance using reverse-targeting techniques? Was this being done on all U.S. persons, or did this particular description apply only to specific individuals? Were standard minimization procedures correctly followed by the FBI and CIA?

Incidental collection happens all the time. U.S. citizens are inadvertently caught in foreign surveillance. But Brennan’s comments sounded specific to certain U.S. citizens. Brennan’s comments sounded like a description of the activities that Nunes uncovered in March 2017.

A closer examination is needed. Perhaps we'll get one from the Department of Justice inspector general’s pending report on FISA abuses. Because it sounded like Brennan may have admitted to something close to the illegal targeted surveillance of U.S. citizens.

Jeff Carlson is a CFA® Charterholder. He has worked for 20 years as an analyst and portfolio manager in the high-yield bond market. He runs the website TheMarketsWork.com