The History Behind America's Most Secretive Court Revelations of phone traffic surveillance by the NSA highlight the ongoing and controversial role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It was created to address domestic spying abuses uncovered in the 1970s.
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The History Behind America's Most Secretive Court

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The History Behind America's Most Secretive Court


The History Behind America's Most Secretive Court

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne. It's been a rocky 24 hours for the U.S. National Security Agency. The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers are reporting that the intelligence agency, along with the FBI, has been secretly mining data from top U.S. Internet companies. Earlier this hour, we spoke with Glenn Greenwald, one of The Guardian writers who broke that story. The tech giants deny giving the NSA direct access to their servers.

All of this comes on the heels of the news that the NSA has also been collecting phone records of millions of Americans, with a top-secret court order. NPR's Larry Abramson reports news of the collected data highlights the ongoing and controversial role of America's most secret court.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: This week, The Guardian newspaper shared with its readers a document that few people ever get to see - an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, telling Verizon to share countless phone records with the National Security Agency. The White House would not confirm the existence of this surveillance effort, but it insisted Congress is fully briefed about such activities. Members of Congress confirmed they knew. Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the program stored phone records, to look for terrorist connections.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: If there's a number that matches a terrorist number that has been dialed by a U.S. number, or dialed from a terrorist to a U.S. number, then that may be flagged.

ABRAMSON: The court order does not let the NSA eavesdrop on the content of conversations, but it does allow the agency to collect data about the phone calls of millions of Americans without their knowledge, whether or not they are directly linked to anything illegal. The chair of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, insisted the program protected privacy by operating under strict oversight from Congress and from a special surveillance court.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: And that's why this is carefully done. That's why it is a federal court of 11 judges who sit 24/7, who reviews these requests, and then either approves them or denies them.

ABRAMSON: The names of the judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are public. You can see them on the Internet, but good luck trying to read the thousands of wiretap orders the court has approved since it was created in 1978. They are all secret. The court was designed to address abuses uncovered in the 1970s by congressional investigations.

Gregory Nojeim, of the Center For Democracy and Technology, says Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to bring law to a lawless area.

GREGORY NOJEIM: Prior to FISA, presidents claimed authority to engage in electronic surveillance for national security reasons, without any court oversight.

ABRAMSON: That lead to uncontrolled domestic spying by the National Security Agency, the CIA and the FBI. The FISA court, it was hoped, would stop those abuses by only approving legitimate surveillance requests without tipping off terrorists and spies. To do that, Greg Nojeim says, everything about the court has to remain secret.

NOJEIM: Its proceedings are not revealed to the public. And if they are revealed to Congress, they're revealed in a classified setting.

ABRAMSON: That is one of the unusual things about the Verizon case. We get to see an actual FISA court order signed by Judge Roger Vincent, a federal judge in the northern district of Florida. Ordinary wiretaps are sometimes challenged by defendants once they're charged, but victims of FISA wiretaps almost never even find out that they were bugged.

In 2008, a group of activists and journalists challenged a law that expanded this court's authority. They argued that their communications put them at risk of being caught up in government wiretaps. But earlier this year, the Supreme Court said these people could not show that they had, in fact, been monitored, so it threw their suit out.

David Fidler, a law professor at Indiana University School of Law, says the existence of this court order could provide new grounds for a challenge.

DAVID FIDLER: Makes it much more likely that a Verizon customer can say, hey - you know - I was, in fact, the subject of surveillance. Here's the - you know, the scope of the order.

ABRAMSON: The secrecy of the entire FISA system makes it just as difficult for members of Congress to raise questions. Two senators said Thursday they had concerns about the surveillance order, but they couldn't speak up because the whole process is secret.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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