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Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) was established by Congress in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. The role of the FISC is to provide judicial oversight of Intelligence Community activities in a classified setting. The FISC is composed of federal judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and its decisions can be reviewed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review (FISCR) and the Supreme Court. Most of the FISC's orders and filings are highly classified, but several opinions have been published or released with redactions. After the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, the FISC has to rule on important and novel Fourth Amendment issues raised by the government's proposed targeting and minimization procedures.

Top News

  • House Adopts Weakened NSA Reform Bill, Senators Now Look to Improve Privacy and Transparency Protections: The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to adopt a modified USA "FREEDOM" Act. The bill no longer prohibits bulk collection of communications records. Other key provisions were also removed. Senator Leahy said that the bill is "an important step towards reforming" surveillance authorities, but expressed disappointment that the current version "does not include some of the meaningful reforms contained in the original" bill. In 2013 EPIC filed a Petition to the Supreme Court seeking to end bulk collection of telephone call records. EPIC also testified before the House in 2012 that the FISA should not be renewed without adoption of new reporting requirements. For more information, see EPIC: FISA and EPIC: FISA Reform. (May. 23, 2014)
  • House Judiciary Committee to Consider Bill to End Bulk Surveillance, Improve NSA Oversight: The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a markup of the USA Freedom Act. The proposed "Manager's Amendment", sponsored by James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), would prevent bulk collection of phone records and other business records, and would limit the scope of phone record searches. The bill would also (1) limit the collection of US persons communications by the NSA's PRISM program, (2) require public reports on the use of FISA surveillance, (3) require declassification of significant FISA Court opinions, and (4) create a public advocate at the FISA Court. In 2012, EPIC testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the need for public reports and the declassification of significant FISC opinions. In 2013, EPIC filed a petition with the Supreme Court, alleging that the bulk collection of telephone record was unlawful. For more information, see EPIC: FISA Reform and In re EPIC. (May. 5, 2014)
  • Annual FISA Report Shows Decrease in Surveillance Orders, Questions About Scope Remain: The Department of Justice has published the 2013 FISA Report. The brief report provides summary information about the government's use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In 2012 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted 1,789 FISA orders and 212 "Section 215" orders. In 2013, there were 1,588 requests to conduct FISA surveillance, with 34 modifications. The FISC also granted 178 business record orders under Section 215, with 141 modified by the court. The significant number of modified orders indicates that the government's initial applications are too broad. For example, the controversial NSA Metadata program, was authorized by the surveillance court under a modified order. It is possible that in 2013 the court authorized other bulk collection programs. For more information, see EPIC: FISC Orders 1979-2014 and EPIC: FISA Graphs. (May. 1, 2014)
  • EPIC Obtains Secret Attorney General Reports on Electronic Surveillance: As a result of an FOIA lawsuit, EPIC has obtained copies of the Attorney General Reports on the government's electronic surveillance activities. These reports have been submitted to Congress every six months since 2001 but have never before been disclosed to the public. These reports include new details about government collection of telephone and Internet records. The reports include the number of US persons targeted for "Pen Register" surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The reports also contain noncompliance incidents and significant foreign intelligence court opinions, but those details have been withheld by the Justice Department. The documents obtained by EPIC also show that the Justice Department told Congress that the collection of telephone subscriber information would decrease, even after the section 215 bulk collection program began. The case is EPIC v. Dept. of Justice, No. 13-961. For more information, see EPIC v. DOJ - FISA Pen Registers and EPIC: FISA Stats. (Mar. 19, 2014)
  • In FOIA Lawsuit, EPIC Obtains Secret Reports on Data Collection: In a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, EPIC has obtained reports that detail the number of times the Surveillance Court authorized the use of techniques that gather the telephone numbers and metadata of phone customers and Internet users. The previously secret reports obtained by EPIC cover the period between 2000 and 2013. The reports reveal a dramatic increase in the use of these techniques in 2004 and then a significant reduction in 2008, likely the consequence of a shift to other investigative techniques. The documents show that nearly all applications to the Surveillance Court were approved without modifications. In 2013, EPIC petitioned the Supreme Court to end the bulk telephone record collection program. Former members of the Church Committee and dozens of legal scholars supported the EPIC petition. For more information see: EPIC v. Department of Justice - Pen Register Reports, EPIC: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Orders 1979-2012, and In re EPIC. (Mar. 3, 2014)
  • New Limits on NSA Telephone Record Program Established, Authority Expires March 28: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has granted the government’s motion to limit access by the NSA to the bulk telephone records provided by US telephone companies. Under the new rules, the government cannot "query" the telephone metadata until after the court finds that there is a "reasonable, articulable suspicion that the selection term is associated with" a terrorist organization. The new rules also limit query results to telephone numbers within "two hops" of the selector. President Obama announced the new legal requirement during his recent speech on surveillance reform, when he committed to end the NSA’s bulk record collection program. The NSA's authority to force US telephone companies to turn over records on all their customers will expire on March 28th. The President has recommended that the Intelligence Community and the Attorney General propose an alternative to the bulk collection program prior to that deadline. For more information, see EPIC: FISC and EPIC: NSA Verizon Phone Record Monitoring. (Feb. 7, 2014)
  • Federal Communications Commission Seeks Public Comment to Protect Phone Record Privacy: The Federal Communications Commission has invited public comments on a petition requesting the FCC to rule that the sale of consumer phone records to the government is a violation of the federal Communications Act. EPIC joined the petition, which was organized by Public Knowledge. In 2013, EPIC urged the FCC to determine whether AT&T violated the Communications Act when it sold private consumer call detail information to the Drug Enforcement Administration and Central Intelligence Agency. In 2013 EPIC also wrote to the FCC to explain that Verizon had likely violated the Communications Act when it disclosed telephone records to the NSA. Public comments on the petition are due January 17, 2014 and reply comments are due February 3, 2014. For more information, see EPIC: CPNI (Customer Proprietary Network Information), and EPIC: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. (Jan. 7, 2014)
  • NY Judge Rules NSA Program Legal, Split Emerges Among Courts: A federal judge in New York has ruled that the NSA's telephone metadata program is legal. The ruling comes less than two weeks after a federal judge in Washington, DC issued an injunction against the telephone record collection program—calling it an "unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment." The opinions create a split amongst the district courts as to the legality of the NSA's program. Both opinions are expected to be appealed. The President's Review Group recently released its report recommending the end of the NSA's bulk collection of telephony metadata. EPIC filed a Petition in the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the legality of the program, shortly after the disclosure earlier this summer. For more information, see In re EPIC and EPIC: FISC Verizon Order. (Dec. 30, 2013)
  • Federal Judge Enjoins Telephone Metadata Program, NSA Likely Violated Fourth Amendment: A federal judge today issued an injunction against the NSA telephone record collection program. Judge Leon ruled that the plaintiffs "have a substantial likelihood of showing that their privacy interest outweigh the Governments interest in collecting and analyzing bulk telephony metadata and therefore the NSA's Bulk Metadata program is indeed an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment." Judge Leon also stressed that "While Congress has great latitude to create statutory schemes like FISA, it may not hang a cloak of secrecy over the Constitution." This is the first court opinion issued on the controversial surveillance program. EPIC filed a Petition in the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the legality of the the program, shortly after the disclosure earlier this summer. The decision of the district court will be stayed pending an appeal by the government to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. For more information, see In re EPIC and EPIC: FISC Verizon Order. (Dec. 16, 2013)
  • Senate Confirms Judge Wald for Privacy Oversight Board: The Senate confirmed the reappointment of Judge Patricia M. Wald to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Judge Wald's current term was set to expire next month, but President Obama re-nominated her on March 21, 2013. Last year, EPIC recommended that the Oversight Board, consistent with its mandate, pursue a broad agenda, including (1) suspension of the Fusion Center Program ; (2) limiting closed-circuit television surveillance; (3) eliminating the use of body scanners; (4) establishing privacy regulations for drones; (5) improving Information Sharing Environment (ISE) and Suspicious Activity Reporting (SARS) Standards; and (6) Privacy Act adherence. More recently, EPIC addressed the Board at a workshop on NSA Surveillance. And in response to a public rulemaking, EPIC also provided extensive comments on a proposed rule governing the Board's Freedom of Information Act practices. The Board adopted nearly all of EPIC's recommendations on transparency. For more information, See EPIC: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and EPIC: Open Government. (Dec. 13, 2013)

Overview of the FISC

Jurisdiction and Structure

The FISC has jurisdiction to hear applications for, and issue orders authorizing, four traditional FISA activities: electronic surveillance, physical searches, pen/trap surveillance, and compelled production of business records. In addition, the FISC has jurisdiction to review the government's targeting and minimization procedures related to programmatic surveillance certified under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.

The FISC was originally composed of seven district judges, from seven circuits, appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States to serve for a maximum of seven years. In 2001, amendments in the USA PATRIOT Act increased the number of judges on the Court to eleven, with three required to live within 20 miles of the District of Columbia. The Chief Justice appoints a Presiding Judge for the court from amongst these eleven judges. The FISC operates out of a secure location in the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., but can authorize searches or surveillance "anywhere within the United States."

The FISC operations are largely kept secret due to the sensitive nature of the proceedings, and the court's ex parte process is primarily non-adversarial. The target of the order is not given an opportunity to appear at the hearing or informed of the presence of the order. However, the court rules of procedure do allow the electronic service providers and business order recipients to petition to challenge or modify any order. Records from FISC hearings are not revealed, even to petitioners challenging surveillance orders under the court rules. The FISC has discretion to publish its opinions.

FISC Review of FISA Applications

Traditional FISA investigative tools include: electronic surveillance, physical searches, pen/trap surveillance, and orders compelling production of business records. In order to conduct electronic surveillance or a physical search, the government must apply to the FISC and show probable cause to believe that the target is a "foreign power" or an "agent of a foreign power." For electronic surveillance, the government must also establish that the facilities are being used by an agent of a foreign power or a foreign power. For physical searches, the government must show that the place to be searched contains "foreign intelligence information" and that it is used, owned, or possessed by an agent of a foreign power or a foreign power. The government must also provide a description of the information sought and the places or facilities that will be searched.

When the FISC grants applications for surveillance it issues a "primary order" finding that all the FISA requirements were met. The FISC also issues a "secondary order" providing that "upon request of the applicant," a specified third party must "furnish the applicant forthwith with all information, facilities, or technical assistance necessary" to accomplish the search "in such a manner as will protect its secrecy and produce a minimum of interference." Assisting third parties, such as telephone and Internet service providers, are compensated for any assistance rendered, and can keep certain records under security procedures adopted by the government.

Authorizations of pen/trap surveillance and collection of business records are subject to a lower standard than electronic and physical searches under the FISA. The FISC must authorize pen/trap surveillance, allowing the FBI or others to acquire "routing and addressing information," if the government certifies that the information likely to be obtained is relevant to an "international terrorism" investigation or is "foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person." Similarly, the FISC must grant a government application to compel production of business records or tangible things if there are "reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible things are relevant to an authorized investigation" conducted under Attorney General guidelines and Executive Order 12333.

FISC Review of FAA Section 702 Surveillance

Unlike the four "traditional FISA" surveillance activities, the surveillance programs authorized under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 do not involve FISC oversight of individual surveillance orders. The Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence are allowed to "jointly" authorize "the targeting of persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information" without adhering to traditional FISA rules. Instead, the FISC reviews the targeting and minimization procedures adopted by the government and determines whether they comport with the statutory restrictions and the Fourth Amendment. The FISC also reviews the "certification" submitted by the government attesting that "a significant purpose of the acquisition is to obtain foreign intelligence information," providing copies of the targeting and minimization procedures, and attesting that acquisition will comply with certain statutory limitations. The statutory limitations on acquisition are that it:

  • (1) may not intentionally target any person known at the time of acquisition to be located in the United States;
  • (2) may not intentionally target a person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States if the purpose of such acquisition is to target a particular, known person reasonably believed to be in the United States;
  • (3) may not intentionally target a United States person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States;
  • (4) may not intentionally acquire any communication as to which the sender and all intended recipients are known at the time of the acquisition to be located in the United States; and
  • (5) shall be conducted in a manner consistent with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. 50 U.S.C. § 1881a(b)
  • 50 U.S.C. § 1881a(b).

On October 3, 2011, the FISC ruled that the NSA "upstream collection" of Internet communications violated the Fourth Amendment and the FISA. Specifically, the targeting and minimization procedures adopted by the NSA were not sufficient to protect the significant number (more than 50,000 per year) of wholly domestic communications obtained via "upstream collection." The FISC also found that NSA minimization rules were insufficient to satisfy the FISA because they were designed to "maximize rather than minimize" retention of non-public information about U.S. persons.

Review of FISC Decisions

Congress created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review (FISCR) in 1978 to hear appeals from applications denied by FISC. This court is made up of three judges, appointed by the Chief Justice, from U.S. district or appellate courts and serving for seven years. Since 2001, the role of the FISCR has expanded slightly to include: (1) review of FISC orders granting or denying petitions to modify or set aside business record orders; and (2) review of FISC orders issued under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. The FISCR can also consider petitions by the Government or an electronic service provider to review a FISC order on a motion to challenge or enforce a surveillance directive. A judge of the FISCR, or the FISCR as a whole, can also grant a motion to stay a FISC order under review. The FISCR consideration of a FISC order denying an application for electronic surveillance or physical search is quite limited. After a "motion of the united states" to transmit the record, the FISCR may either affirm or reverse the FISC judge's decision. If the FISCR determines that the application was properly denied, it must "provide for the record a written statement of each reason for its decision."

The Supreme Court has statutory jurisdiction to review FISC and FISCR opinions under certain circumstances. The Court may review on a Writ of Certiorari filed by the United States: (1) any decision of the FISCR affirming the denial of a government application for electronic surveillance; and any decision of the FISCR reviewing a FISC order under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. The Court may also review on Writ of Certiorari by the Government or a recipient of an order or directive: any decision of the FISCR reviewing a FISC order granting or denying a petition to modify or set aside a business record order. The Court may also review, on Writ of Certiorari by the Government; and any decision of the FISCR reviewing a FISC order on a petition to challenge or enforce a surveillance directive under Section 702. The Supreme Court can issue a stay pending review in such cases.

Legal Documents

Opinions of FISC and FISCR

Executive Orders

Rules and Other Documents

FISA Court Orders

FISA Court Orders, By Year

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National Security Letters Issued, By Year

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For more information, including exact numbers and sources, please refer to EPIC's FISA Court Orders Chart

Resources

  • U.S. Courts, The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the Court of Review
  • The Changing Composition of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and What if Anything to Do About It , Russell Wheeler, Lawfare Research Paper Series, Vol. 2, No. 2, (June 3, 2014).
  • Is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Really a Rubber Stamp? Ex Parte Proceedings and the FISC Win Rate, Conor Clarke, 66 Stan. L. Rev. Online 125 (February 28, 2014)
  • Government keeps secrets hush, hush, Dana Hedgpeth (September 14, 2010)
  • Intelligence Surveillance Court Could Become Less Secret, Ellen Nakishima and Spencer S. Hsu (September 13, 2010)
  • More on the FISC Rules of Procedure, Gregory S. McNeal (September 10, 2010)
  • The FISA Court Sends a Message to the Executive Branch, Mark Ambinder (September 9, 2010)
  • New FISC Rules of Procedure, Gregory S. McNeal (September 7, 2010)
  • How to Conduct Surveillance of Terror Suspects, Daniel Gallington (September 6, 2010)
  • FISA Court Proposes New Rules, Steven Aftergood (September 2, 2010)
  • Surveillance Court Quietly Moving, Del Quentin Wilber (March 2, 2009)

    Previous News

    • Secret Surveillance Continues to Increase. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Report reveals that the government made 2,072 secret surveillance requests in 2005, a record high and 18 percent more than 2004. None of the requests were denied by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secretive body that issues the warrants. In contrast, the Department of Justice reports (pdf) that law enforcement agencies across the country were authorized to conduct 1,773 wiretaps, which are issued under a more stringent standard. The report on secret wiretap warrants also indicated that the government issued 9,254 National Security Letters during 2005. These letters can be used to obtain information about individuals without the government applying for a court-reviewed warrant. (May 2, 2006)
    • American Bar Association Says Unlawful Surveillance Should Stop. A new report (pdf) from the American Bar Association calls on the President to abide by constitutional checks and balances, and to end electronic surveillance inside the United States that does not comply with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Association overwhelmingly supported the report, which also urged the Congress to undertake comprehensive investigations. (Feb. 15, 2006)
    • Electronic Surveillance at an All-Time High in 2004. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Annual Report (pdf) reveals that there were 1758 applications for secret surveillance in 2004, an all-time high. None of the applications for secret surveillance warrants were denied. In 2004, as in 2003, more secret surveillance warrants were granted than federal wiretap warrants, which have more stringent standards. A report on federal wiretap warrants in 2004 reveals that state and federal courts authorized 1,710 interceptions in 2004, an increase of 19 percent over 2003 and more than in any previous year. Federal officials made an all-time high 730 intercept applications in 2004, a 26 percent increase over 2003. (Apr. 29, 2005)
    • 2003 Surveillance Report: Secret Warrants Surpass Standard Warrants. The 2003 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Annual Report (pdf) reveals that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted 1724 applications for secret surveillance last year, more than in any previous year. The report shows that 2003 was the first year ever that more secret surveillance warrants were granted than federal wiretap warrants, which are issued only under a more stringent legal standard. The PATRIOT Act significantly expanded the government's authority to make use of secret surveillance, including in circumstances where part of the investigation is unrelated to an intelligence investigation. The report also reveals that a small number of applications for secret surveillance were denied in 2003 for the first time ever. For more information, see EPIC's FISA statistics page. (May 6, 2004)
    • FISA Wiretaps At All-Time High. According to the 2002 FISA Annual Report from the Attorney General, "All 1228 applications presented to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2002 were approved." In 2001, 934 applications were approved. See EPIC's FISA statistics page. (May 1, 2003)
    • Surveillance Oversight Act Introduced. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have introduced the Domestic Security Oversight Act (pdf). The bill would increase the public reporting requirements of the Department of Justice on its implementation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The American Bar Association has also urged (pdf) better public reporting regarding the FISA. An interim report by the bill sponsors (pdf) on the FBI's use of the FISA details major problems with its implementation. (Feb. 25, 2003)
    • American Bar Association Urges FISA Oversight. The American Bar Association has adopted a resolution calling on Congress to conduct oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to ensure that government investigations do not violate Constitutional protections. The ABA also urged Congress to require annual reports for FISA investigations, comparable to those required by the federal wiretap act. The ABA action follows a controversial decision by the Foreign Intelligence Court of Review. (Feb. 11, 2003)
    • Secret Appeals Court Permits Broader Electronic Surveillance. The secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review today issued an opinion (pdf) granting the executive branch broader surveillance authority in foreign intelligence cases. The opinion, which overturned the lower court's determination, was the first issued by the Court of Review since FISA's inception in 1978. The case involves an unprecedented decision made public in August which revealed a pattern of FBI misrepresentations to a secret surveillance court. For more information, see the ACLU's press release on the decision. (Nov. 18, 2002)
    • Memo Reveals FBI Wiretap Violations. A recently disclosed FBI memo reveals that agents illegally videotaped suspects, intercepted e-mails without court permission, recorded the wrong phone conversations, and allowed electronic surveillance operations to run beyond their legal deadline, during sensitive terrorism investigations. The mistakes referenced in the internal memo are different than those delineated and criticized in May by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The existence of the memo was first revealed in documents EPIC obtained in a FOIA lawsuit. (Oct. 10, 2002)
    • Rights Groups File Brief With Secret Appeals Court. EPIC has joined with a coalition of civil liberties groups to urge a secret appeals court to reject a government bid for broadly expanded powers to conduct "national security" surveillance on U.S. citizens. In an amicus brief (pdf) filed with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, the groups said that expanding such powers would jeopardize fundamental constitutional interests. The case involves an unprecedented decision made public last month which revealed a pattern of FBI misrepresentations to a secret surveillance court (see below). (Sep. 20, 2002)
    • FISA Court Chastises DOJ, FBI. In a published opinion (also available in pdf), the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court sharply criticized the DOJ and FBI for providing the tribunal misleading information in 75 cases. The Court limited the request of the DOJ to share intelligence information for criminal prosecutions. The Court said that DOJ substituted relaxed foreign intelligence gathering wiretapping procedures to evade higher requirements for standard criminal investigations: "The 2002 procedures appear to be designed to amend the law and substitute the FISA for Title III electronic surveillances" The Court continues to say that this may be because "the government is unable to meet the substantive requirements of these law enforcement tools..." (Aug. 23, 2002)