Spy Court Fast Facts

Posted at 4:49 PM, Sep 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-05 18:49:04-04

Here’s a look at what you need to know about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created in 1978.

It exists to oversee and authorize activities carried out under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA).

About the Court:
Before the Patriot Act (2001), foreign intelligence had to be a primary purpose of the investigation. Now, foreign intelligence has to be a significant purpose.

The court meets in a high security room, on the sixth floor of the Justice Department.

All proceedings of the court are secret.

The court has two parts: a lower court and a Court of Review.

The lower court has a rotating panel of 11 Federal District Court judges. At least three of the judges must live within 20 miles of the District of Columbia.

Currently the judges are:
Rosemary Collyer
James Boasberg
Rudolph Contreras
Anne Conway
Raymond Dearie
Claire Eagan
James Jones
Robert Kugler
Michael Mosman
Thomas Russell
John Tharp, Jr.

The Court of Review consists of three judges.

The judges are:
Jose Cabranes (Presiding), Second Circuit
David Sentelle (District of Columbia Circuit)
Richard Tallman (Ninth Circuit)

The Chief Justice of the United States appoints all of the judges.

October 26, 2001 – President George W. Bush signs into law the USA Patriot Act, after the attacks of September 11th.

May 17, 2002 – FISC turns down the Justice Department’s request to allow intelligence agents and criminal prosecutors more freedom to work together on cases. According to the New York Times, this is the first time in its 24-year history that the court turned down a request from the Justice Department.

May 17, 2002 – The court identifies 75 cases in which the FBI and Justice Department submitted false information in order to gain approval for surveillance. All of the cases occurred during the administration of Bill Clinton.

August 22, 2002 – The Justice Department appeals the ruling handed down by the lower court in May.

September 9, 2002 – The Court of Review meets for the first time in its history. The judges hear arguments from Solicitor General Theodore Olson that the USA Patriot Act of 2001 has expanded the scope of FISA and allows for greater cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. No other opinions are heard, as per the rules of the court.

September 10, 2002 – The Senate Judiciary Committee calls on the Court of Review to make public all transcripts from the September 9 hearing, as well as the Court’s decision. Senator Patrick Leahy, head of the Judiciary Committee, says, “We need to know how this law (the Patriot Act) is being interpreted and applied.”

November 2, 2002 – The Court of Review overturns a key court ruling which had placed limits on the government’s use of wiretaps targeting suspected spies and terrorists.

February 12, 2003 – The ACLU, along with a coalition of other civil liberties groups, asks the Supreme Court to overturn new, more lenient standards for wiretaps in foreign intelligence investigations. It would have been the first time for the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of such wiretaps, known as FISAS for the act they are named after – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

March 25, 2003 – The Supreme Court turns down the request by the ACLU without comment.

December 15, 2005 – The New York Times reports that President Bush signed a presidential order in 2002 allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans and others in the US (on international calls) without obtaining warrants through FISC. The newspaper reports that as many as 500 people in the US are being monitored at any one time, and between 5,000 and 7,000 people overseas are being wiretapped.

December 16, 2005 – In his live weekly radio address, President Bush acknowledges that he has authorized wiretaps without warrants but defends the action as “fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities.”

December 19, 2005 – At a news conference, President Bush defends the warrant-less wiretapping, “This program is carefully reviewed approximately every 45 days to ensure it is being used properly. Leaders in the United States Congress have been briefed more than a dozen times on this program. And it has been effective in disrupting the enemy while safeguarding our civil liberties. This program has targeted those with known links to al-Qaida. I’ve reauthorized this program more than 30 times since September the 11th attacks, and I intend to do so for so long as the nation faces the continuing threat of an enemy that wants to kill our American citizens.”

December 19, 2005 – Lower court judge James Robertson resigns, via letter to Chief Justice John Roberts. According to the Washington Post, the resignation is in protest of President Bush’s actions concerning the warrant-less wiretaps.

August 17, 2006 – Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, of the US District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan Southern Division, strikes down the NSA warrant-less wiretapping program, saying that it violates free speech and privacy rights.

January 17, 2007 – The Bush Administration announces that it will allow the court to oversee its domestic surveillance program and will seek the court’s permission before eavesdropping. This reverses the position held by the administration since the secret wiretapping program was revealed in 2005.

August 5, 2007 – President Bush signs into law the Protect America of 2007 which updates the Foreign Surveillance Act of 1978, but only for a period of six months. The new law gives the attorney general or the director of national intelligence the authority to approve surveillance of suspected terrorists overseas, bypassing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

June 5, 2013 – British newspaper The Guardian publishes a top secret FISA court order requiring Verizon to turn over millions of its customers’ telephone records to the National Security Agency. According to the report, the order was requested by the FBI and gives the NSA blanket access to the phone records of millions of Americans.

January 17, 2014 – President Barack Obama calls on Congress to authorize establishment of a new panel of outside advocates to participate in “significant cases” before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that handles intelligence collection issues.

June 2, 2015 – The president signs the USA Freedom Act, which includes a number of FISA court reforms. FISA court decisions will be declassified, as per the law, and an expert panel will be established to advise the court on civil liberties, technology and other matters. Under the new rules, investigative agencies must get FISA court authorization to access metadata from telecommunications companies.

June 29, 2015 – The court rules that the NSA can resume bulk collection of phone data and continue to do so for six months. The USA Freedom Act allows the NSA to collect phone records for a limited six-month transitional period.

April 12, 2017 – The Washington Post reports that the FBI and the Justice Department obtained a warrant from a FISA judge to monitor President Donald Trump’s former campaign adviser, Carter Page, as part of its investigation into possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

September 18, 2017 – CNN reports that US investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election. Surveillance began in 2014 after the FBI began investigating Washington consulting firms working for Ukraine’s former ruling party and was discontinued in 2016 due to lack of evidence. A new FISA warrant was obtained after the FBI began investigating ties between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives.

March 28, 2018 – The Justice Department Inspector General announces that it has launched a probe into the department and the FBI’s handling of warrant applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

July 21, 2018 – The FBI releases a redacted version of its previously classified foreign surveillance warrant application on Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.