In more than a dozen classified rulings, the nation’s surveillance court has created a secret body of law giving the National Security Agency the power to amass vast collections of data on Americans while pursuing not only terrorism suspects, but also people possibly involved in nuclear proliferation, espionage and cyberattacks, officials say.
The 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, was once mostly focused on approving case-by-case wiretapping orders. But since major changes in legislation and greater judicial oversight of intelligence operations were instituted six years ago, it has quietly become almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come, the officials said.
While President Obama and his intelligence advisers have spoken of the surveillance programs leaked by Mr. Snowden mainly in terms of combating terrorism, the court has also interpreted the law in ways that extend into other national security concerns. In one recent case, for instance, intelligence officials were able to get access to an e-mail attachment sent within the United States because they said they were worried that the e-mail contained a schematic drawing or a diagram possibly connected to Iran’s nuclear program.
In the past, that probably would have required a court warrant because the suspicious e-mail involved American communications. In this case, however, a little-noticed provision in a 2008 law, expanding the definition of “foreign intelligence” to include “weapons of mass destruction,” was used to justify access to the message.
“The definition of ‘foreign intelligence’ is very broad,” another former intelligence official said in an interview. “An espionage target, a nuclear proliferation target, that all falls within FISA, and the court has signed off on that.”
The official, like a half-dozen other current and former national security officials, discussed the court’s rulings and the general trends they have established on the condition of anonymity because they are classified. Judges on the FISA court refused to comment on the scope and volume of their decisions.
Unlike the Supreme Court, the FISA court hears from only one side in the case — the government — and its findings are almost never made public. A Court of Review is empaneled to hear appeals, but that is known to have happened only a handful of times in the court’s history, and no case has ever been taken to the Supreme Court. In fact, it is not clear in all circumstances whether Internet and phone companies that are turning over the reams of data even have the right to appear before the FISA court.
A single judge signs most surveillance orders, which totaled nearly 1,800 last year. None of the requests from the intelligence agencies was denied, according to the court.
Geoffrey R. Stone, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, said he was troubled by the idea that the court is creating a significant body of law without hearing from anyone outside the government, forgoing the adversarial system that is a staple of the American justice system. “That whole notion is missing in this process,” he said.
In issues like this, it is safe to assume whatever legislation is passed, that legislation will do the exact opposite of the publicly stated intention, in this case "prevent wiretapping abuses by the government".
Clearly FISA, which only hears one side of the case can never function as intended. Political appointees will see to that.
The only debate is is whether the "stated" intention was actually the "real" intention in the first place.
Mike "Mish" Shedlock
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