The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Its Regime of Secrecy
Passed in 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) dictates how the government conducts physical and electronic surveillance for national security purposes against “foreign powers” and “agents of foreign powers.” FISA allows surveillance against “U.S. persons,” Americans and others in the U.S., so long as the agency doing the surveillance demonstrates and provides probable cause that the U.S. person is engaged in terrorism, espionage, or other activities on behalf of a foreign power.
Typically when law enforcement conducts a search, the Fourth Amendment requires that they get a search warrant approved by a neutral magistrate, a judge assigned to hear warrant applications. Under FISA, surveillance orders go through a slightly different review. The statute created an entirely separate court venue filled with 11 judges designated to review FISA surveillance orders. These judges make up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
Similar to how courts review standard search warrants, FISC judges review FISA surveillance applications out of public view. Judges typically hear arguments from the government and no one else, court hearings are not public, and the FISA orders themselves are kept secret.
(Notably, this warrant-like review does not happen under Section 702 of FISA, which the NSA uses to collect billions of communications without a warrant, including Americans’ communications. Under Section 702, which you can read about here, FISC judges do not review individual targets of surveillance and instead sign off on programmatic surveillance policies.)
In the FISC, secrecy in each step is heightened. The court’s opinions and any transcript or record of the proceedings are automatically classified. Even the court’s physical location is constructed to be “the nation’s most secure courtroom,” with reinforced concrete and hand scanners to keep unauthorized people out.
This secrecy is hard to unravel after the fact. When recently asked by Rep. Nunes for more information about the renewed FISA surveillance warrant on Carter Page, Rosemary Collyer, the presiding judge of the FISC wrote:
“As you know, any such transcripts would be classified. It may also be helpful for me to observe that, in a typical process of considering an application, we make no systematic record of questions we ask or responses the government gives.”
Although surveillance conducted for run-of-the-mill law enforcement is often shadowy, the FISA process is far more shielded from public view. For example, standard search warrants are used to gather evidence for later prosecutions that are by default public. That means at some point the government has to face—and knows it has to face—a defense attorney’s efforts to question the evidence gathered from the search warrant. This is known as a “motion to suppress,” and with typical search warrants, these motions are filed in a public court. When that court hears a motion to suppress, it usually issues an order discussing why the surveillance violated—or didn’t violate—the law. This is how our legal system is intended to function. Lawyers and the public actually learn what the law is through this process, because in our system it is the duty of courts to “say what the law is.” For that reason, secret law is a perversion of our system.
Moreover, the public disclosure of law enforcement search warrants serves important ends outside of any particular legal challenge. For one, they let the public know what police are doing, both in their name and with their tax dollars. Second, they allow for greater accountability when police overstep their authority or otherwise misbehave.
FISC proceedings routinely fail this test.
FISA orders are for foreign intelligence purposes, so the surveillance is rarely used in a prosecution and rarely challenged in a motion to suppress. Moreover, even if the fruits of FISA surveillance are used in court, criminal defendants and other litigants are deprived of access to this information, so they have little way of knowing if evidence brought against them may have come from an improper FISA order. (FISA provides a mechanism for defendants to request this information, but no defendant has succeeded in doing so in FISA’s 40-year history.) This impedes a defendant’s ability to challenge their prosecution, and it prevents related, public knowledge of these challenges.
But the secrecy in FISA extends much further than FISC, adding further opaque layers between what intelligence agencies and the court do and what the public sees.
This will be a four part series, this is part two of four on the topic for today. I hope you enjoyed the blog and learned a few new facts, thank you for reading.