Why The FISA Court Is Not What It Used To Be President Obama says federal judges have been "overseeing" the recently exposed government surveillance programs. But few, if any, experts in the Bush or Obama administrations believe that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has the enforcement teeth it once had.


Why The FISA Court Is Not What It Used To Be

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President Obama's administration has offered a consistent defense, as we learn more and more about electronic surveillance programs conducted by the National Security Agency.

The administration has insisted that the collection of mass amounts of data was legal - and in many cases, a court had to approve. The court in question is typically a special court - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court - often known as the FISA court - F-I-S-A - because it operates under a law called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The court's role has changed since 9/11.

Here's NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: President Obama has acknowledged that there are tradeoffs between privacy and security in an age of international terrorism. But he's emphasized that the two surveillance programs exposed this month were repeatedly authorized and reviewed by Congress, and by the courts.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They're a whole range of safeguards involved, and federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout.

TOTENBERG: Overseeing, yes, but not in the way that a normal application for a search warrant is overseen.

For decades, the government conducted warrantless wiretaps of people in the U.S. deemed to be a national security threat, but after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that unconstitutional, Congress created a special intelligence court to review government requests for warrants.

The core of the court's powers remained unchanged for decades. If the government wanted to listen in on conversations or other communications, it had to get a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Court based on individualized suspicion and probable cause to believe that national security was being compromised. After 9-11, the Bush administration circumvented the law. The president authorized new surveillance programs and did not submit them to the Foreign Intelligence Court. After news reports blew the lid off the administration's dodge, President Bush submitted to Congress proposed changes in the law, which were adopted in 2008. Those changes allowed the government to conduct the so-called PRISM program, allowing it to monitor any and all conversations that take place between the U.S. and someone in a foreign country. No longer is there a requirement of individual targeting, observes Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU.

JAMEEL JAFFER: The FISA court is just reviewing, at a very programmatic level, is the government targeting only international communications, or is it impermissibly targeting domestic ones? That's the only question that the FISA court asks.

TOTENBERG: In short, the FISA court is now far more removed from the specifics of targeting people for surveillance. Former National Security Agency general counsel Stewart Baker concedes that point.

STEWART BAKER: But let's remember that the reason they lost that authority was some aggressive actions on the court that may have cost us our best chance at catching the 9-11 hijackers before the hijackings.

TOTENBERG: As a result, the FISA court became less a court than an administrative entity, according to William Banks, director of Syracuse University's Counterterrorism Institute.

WILLIAM BANKS: They really don't have a substantive review of these directives that come down the pike after '08.

TOTENBERG: A second program overseen by the FISA court was authorized in 2001 by the Patriot Act. Under the law, the government has collected communications metadata for Americans and non-Americans alike. The program does not allow monitoring of content per se. Instead, the program orders U.S. telecom companies to provide the records of all phone calls made and email identifiers sent through their servers. The information also includes how long individual calls last, the locations of the calls and specific websites that are surfed. Congressman James Sensenbrenner, author of the Patriot Act, now maintains that the law was not intended to allow such broad information gathering. Here he is on Fox News.

REPRESENTATIVE JAMES SENSENBRENNER: I would see nothing wrong with targeting the phone records of somebody who is suspected of terrorism, but everybody who either sent or received a call from a Verizon phone and maybe the other cell phone providers, that was never the intent of the business record section.

TOTENBERG: That may be little more than buyer's remorse. Bush and Obama administration intelligence officials say Congress has been repeatedly briefed on this program. Moreover, they see the collection of metadata as essentially collecting information on the outside of an envelope, not the information inside. And if, for example, the NSA were to see that there were many different phones calling U.S. numbers from a single location in Yemen, suggesting that there's an attempt of deception, the government would have to go back to the FISA Court and present that information as justification for pulling up the content of those calls. At the bottom, though, few if any experts in the Bush or Obama administrations believe that the FISA Court has the enforcement teeth it once had. Many of those teeth were pulled out by the 2001 Patriot Act and the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Law. For good or ill, as one expert put it, the court has been defanged. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.



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