FISA Court Oversight: A Look Inside a Secret and Empty Process Obama and other NSA defenders insist there are robust limitations on surveillance but the documents show otherwise

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Since we began began publishing stories about the NSA‘s massive domestic spying apparatus, various NSA defenders – beginning with President Obama – have sought to assure the public that this is all done under robust judicial oversight. “When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he proclaimed on June 7 when responding to our story about the bulk collection of telephone records, adding that the program is “fully overseen” by “the FISA court, a court specially put together to evaluate classified programs to make sure that the executive branch, or government generally, is not abusing them”. Obama told Charlie Rose last night:

“What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls … by law and by rule, and unless they … go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been, the same way when we were growing up and we were watching movies, you want to go set up a wiretap, you got to go to a judge, show probable cause.”

The GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, told CNN that the NSA “is not listening to Americans’ phone calls. If it did, it is illegal. It is breaking the law.” Talking points issued by the House GOP in defense of the NSA claimed that surveillance law only “allows the Government to acquire foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S.-persons (foreign, non-Americans) located outside the United States.”

The NSA’s media defenders have similarly stressed that the NSA’s eavesdropping and internet snooping requires warrants when it involves Americans. The Washington Post’s Charles Lane told his readers: “the government needs a court-issued warrant, based on probable cause, to listen in on phone calls.” The Post’s David Ignatius told Post readers that NSA internet surveillance “is overseen by judges who sit on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” and is “lawful and controlled”. Tom Friedman told New York Times readers that before NSA analysts can invade the content of calls and emails, they “have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress.”

This has become the most common theme for those defending NSA surveillance. But these claim are highly misleading, and in some cases outright false.

Top secret documents obtained by the Guardian illustrate what the FISA court actually does – and does not do – when purporting to engage in “oversight” over the NSA’s domestic spying. That process lacks many of the safeguards that Obama, the House GOP, and various media defenders of the NSA are trying to lead the public to believe exist.

No individualized warrants required under 2008 FISA law

Many of the reasons these claims are so misleading is demonstrated by the law itself. When the original FISA law was enacted in 1978, its primary purpose was to ensure that the US government would be barred from ever monitoring the electronic communications of Americans without first obtaining an individualized warrant from the FISA court, which required evidence showing “probable cause” that the person to be surveilled was an agent of a foreign power or terrorist organization.

That was the law which George Bush, in late 2001, violated, when he secretly authorized eavesdropping on the international calls of Americans without any warrants from that court. Rather than act to punish Bush for those actions, the Congress, on a bipartisan basis in 2008, enacted a new, highly diluted FISA law – the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA) – that legalized much of the Bush warrantless NSA program.

Under the FAA, which was just renewed last December for another five years, no warrants are needed for the NSA to eavesdrop on a wide array of calls, emails and online chats involving US citizens. Individualized warrants are required only when the target of the surveillance is a US person or the call is entirely domestic. But even under the law, no individualized warrant is needed to listen in on the calls or read the emails of Americans when they communicate with a foreign national whom the NSA has targeted for surveillance.

As a result, under the FAA, the NSA frequently eavesdrops on Americans’ calls and reads their emails without any individualized warrants – exactly that which NSA defenders, including Obama, are trying to make Americans believe does not take place. As Yale Law professor Jack Balkin explained back in 2009:

“The FISA Amendments Act of 2008, effectively gives the President – now President Obama – the authority to run surveillance programs similar in effect to the warrantless surveillance program [secretly implemented by George Bush in late 2001]. That is because New FISA no longer requires individualized targets in all surveillance programs. Some programs may be ‘vacuum cleaner’ programs that listen to a great many different calls (and read a great many e-mails) with any requirement of a warrant directed at a particular person as long as no US person is directly targeted as the object of the program. . . .

“New FISA authorizes the creation of surveillance programs directed against foreign persons (or rather, against personsbelieved to be outside the United States) – which require no individualized suspicion of anyone being a terrorist, or engaging in any criminal activity. These programs may inevitably include many phone calls involving Americans, who may have absolutely no connection to terrorism or to Al Qaeda.”

As the FAA was being enacted in mid-2008, Professor Balkin explained that “Congress is now giving the President the authority to do much of what he was probably doing (illegally) before”.

The ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director, Jameel Jaffer, told me this week by email:

“On its face, the 2008 law gives the government authority to engage in surveillance directed at people outside the United States. In the course of conducting that surveillance, though, the government inevitably sweeps up the communications of many Americans. The government often says that this surveillance of Americans’ communications is ‘incidental’, which makes it sound like the NSA’s surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and emails is inadvertent and, even from the government’s perspective, regrettable.

“But when Bush administration officials asked Congress for this new surveillance power, they said quite explicitly that Americans’ communications were the communications of most interest to them. See, for example, FISA for the 21st Century, Hearing Before the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 109th Cong. (2006) (statement of Michael Hayden) (stating, in debate preceding passage of FAA’s predecessor statute, that certain communications ‘with one end in the United States” are the ones “that are most important to us’).

The principal purpose of the 2008 law was to make it possible for the government to collect Americans’international communications – and to collect those communications without reference to whether any party to those communications was doing anything illegal. And a lot of the government’s advocacy is meant to obscure this fact, but it’s a crucial one: The government doesn’t need to ‘target’ Americans in order to collect huge volumes of their communications.”

That’s why Democratic senators such as Ron Wyden and Mark Udall spent years asking the NSA: how many Americans are having their telephone calls listened to and emails read by you without individualized warrants? Unlike the current attempts to convince Americans that the answer is “none”, the NSA repeatedly refused to provide any answers, claiming that providing an accurate number was beyond their current technological capabilities. Obviously, the answer is far from “none”.

Contrary to the claims by NSA defenders that the surveillance being conducted is legal, the Obama DOJ has repeatedly thwarted any efforts to obtain judicial rulings on whether this law is consistent with the Fourth Amendment or otherwise legal. Every time a lawsuit is brought contesting the legality of intercepting Americans’ communications without warrants, the Obama DOJ raises claims of secrecy, standing and immunity to prevent any such determination from being made.

The emptiness of ‘oversight’ from the secret FISA court

The supposed safeguard under the FAA is that the NSA annually submits a document setting forth its general procedures for how it decides on whom it can eavesdrop without a warrant. The FISA court then approves those general procedures. And then the NSA is empowered to issue “directives” to telephone and internet companies to obtain the communications for whomever the NSA decides – with no external (i.e. outside the executive branch) oversight – complies with the guidelines it submitted to the court.

In his interview with the president last night, Charlie Rose asked Obama about the oversight he claims exists: “Should this be transparent in some way?” Obama’s answer: “It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA Court.” But as Politico’s Josh Gerstein noted about that exchange: Obama was “referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – which carries out its work almost entirely in secret.” Indeed, that court’s orders are among the most closely held secrets in the US government. That Obama, when asked about transparency, has to cite a court that operates in complete secrecy demonstrates how little actual transparency there is to any this.

The way to bring actual transparency to this process it to examine the relevant Top Secret FISA court documents. Those documents demonstrate that this entire process is a fig leaf, “oversight” in name only. It offers no real safeguards. That’s because no court monitors what the NSA is actually doing when it claims to comply with the court-approved procedures. Once the FISA court puts its approval stamp on the NSA’s procedures, there is no external judicial check on which targets end up being selected by the NSA analysts for eavesdropping. The only time individualized warrants are required is when the NSA is specifically targeting a US citizen or the communications are purely domestic.

When it is time for the NSA to obtain FISA court approval, the agency does not tell the court whose calls and emails it intends to intercept. It instead merely provides the general guidelines which it claims are used by its analysts to determine which individuals they can target, and the FISA court judge then issues a simple order approving those guidelines. The court endorses a one-paragraph form order stating that the NSA’s process “‘contains all the required elements’ and that the revised NSA, FBI and CIA minimization procedures submitted with the amendment ‘are consistent with the requirements of [50 U.S.C. §1881a(e)] and with the fourth amendment to the Constitution of the United States’”. As but one typical example, the Guardian has obtained an August 19, 2010, FISA court approval from Judge John Bates which does nothing more than recite the statutory language in approving the NSA’s guidelines.

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