Leaked documents published by the Intercept Thursday have detailed how the FBI has used secret rules to unconstitutionally spy on journalists without court supervision.
The Intercept obtained classified documents from 2013, which outline FBI rules for its use of National Security Letters, known as NSLs.
NSLs are a controversial tool used by the U.S. federal government that allows the FBI to conduct surveillance without a court order or informing news organizations that they are being targeted.
The leaked documents show how the FBI set very weak rules for itself, requiring less authorization. The rules often bypass legal requirements to obtain subpoenas or search warrants from court, before proceeding to investigate journalists and access their information.
The FBI secret rules stipulate that NSLs can be used to conduct surveillance on reporters and sources in leaked investigations. The rules outline how the FBI can bypass the Justice Department's media guidelines and can instead secretly use an NSL.
NSLs were used on national security investigations. If a journalist is suspected of being a spy or associated with a foreign intelligence service—acting on behalf of a foreign power—extra oversight layers do not exist.
"These supposed rules are incredibly weak and almost nonexistent ... The FBI is entirely able to go after journalists,” said Trevor Timm from the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
The FPF has sued the Justice Department over the release of the secret rules.
The Intercept estimated that the FBI issues thousands of NSLs per year, with many reports showing problems with their use.