Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Reform

Top News


Recent debates over the scope and legality of foreign intelligence surveillance relate to two key provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ("FISA"). These provisions were added and subsequently amended in the decade following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The first is the business records provision, which was established in the USA PATRIOT Act, Section 215. The second is the provision outlining procedures for targeting certain persons outside the United States other than United States persons, added by Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 ("FAA"). Both of these provisions expanded the scope of foreign intelligence surveillance that can be conducted within the United States.

As new details have emerged about the FBI and NSA's domestic intelligence-gathering practices, it has become clear that the current system does not provide sufficient transparency to ensure public oversight and trust. There are three main problems with the current system that have allowed this to occur: the development of a secret body of constitutional and statutory law by the FISC, structural limitations on judicial review of FISA surveillance, and rules inhibiting Congress’ ability to facilitate public oversight. As a result, important questions about the scope and nature of surveillance activity have remained unanswered and the public has been left in the dark.

Overview of the EPIC's FISA Reform Proposals

Stop Unlawful Collection of Domestic Telephone Records

Over the last two months, top administration officials including the Director of National Intelligence have acknowledged the NSA's telephone metadata program, which involves the collection of a majority of call records in the United States. EPIC and others have argued that the FISC simply lacks the authority to grant an order for all domestic call detail records from Verizon or any other communications provider. Under the relevant FISA provision, the court is authorized to issue an order compelling production of business records if it finds that they are "relevant to an authorized investigation" of international terrorism. The FISC is not authorized to compel a service provider to produce, on an ongoing basis, the call detail records of millions of innocent Americans, which are irrelevant to any national security investigation. The NSA's domestic metadata surveillance program is unlawful under the FISA.

Last month, in response to the unlawful FISC order, EPIC filed a petition for a Writ of Mandamus in the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to vacate the order and find that the FISC exceeded its statutory authority. Four groups of leading privacy and constitutional scholars then filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the EPIC Mandamus Petition, and the Solicitor General indicated that he will be filing a response. Legal experts agree that this bulk collection of Americans' telephone records exceeds the limitations of Section 215, that it undermines the Congressional intent of the FISA, that it is contrary to the purposes of the Fourth Amendment, and that the Supreme Court has the authority to issue the relief that EPIC seeks.

The current domestic metadata surveillance program is unlawful and should be discontinued.

Enable Public Oversight of Surveillance Programs

At present, the FISA grants broad surveillance authority with little to no public oversight. Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 ("FAA"), which was reauthorized on December 30, 2012, grants the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence broad authority to conduct surveillance targeted at persons reasonably believed to be outside the United States. The FISC has found that surveillance conducted under Section 702 directives acquires tens of thousands of "wholly domestic" communications each year. Given the significance of this intrusion into Fourth Amendment-protected communications, it is necessary to establish public oversight of these programs by requiring detailed annual reports.

Soon after the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, which amended various FISA provisions, a special committee of the American Bar Association undertook an evaluation of the expanded use of FISA and made recommendations to ensure effective privacy safeguards. The ABA recommended an "annual statistical report on FISA investigations," comparable to the annual Wiretap Report published by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. EPIC recently emphasized the need for such a report given the broad scope of surveillance authorized by the FAA. Each year, EPIC and other organizations closely review the wiretap report released by the administrative office, which provides a comprehensive overview of the cost, duration, and effectiveness of surveillance authorized under Title III. The wiretap report is a critical document that allows the public to evaluate the effectiveness of surveillance conducted in criminal investigations.

In contrast with the wiretap report, the annual FISA letter sent by the Attorney General provides very little useful information about the use of intelligence authorities. The letter recites the number of applications made by the government for electronic surveillance, physical searches, and access to certain business records as well as the requests made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation pursuant to the National Security Letter authorities. The letter also notes the number of applications for electronic surveillance withdrawn by the government, modified by the FISC, or denied by the FISC in whole or in part. Importantly, the letter does not provide any context about the scope of business records collected under Section 215 or any information about the number of directives issued pursuant to Section 702.

Administration officials should publish more information about current surveillance programs, including details about their use, effectiveness, and their impact on the privacy of U.S. persons.

Publish All Significant FISC Opinions

The FISC has jurisdiction to "hear applications for and grant orders approving electronic surveillance" and "physical search[es]" for the "purpose of obtaining foreign intelligence information" on foreign nationals within the United States. The FISC also has the authority to grant applications for pen/trap surveillance and orders compelling the production of business records. Applications to the FISC are secret and its hearings are non-adversarial and ex parte. In addition, FISC opinions are classified and there is no requirement that they be declassified and published. As a result of FISC's review of Section 702 targeting and minimization procedures, the court is now ruling on important and novel Fourth Amendment issues. This new body of secret constitutional and statutory law makes it difficult for the public to fully evaluate the scope and impact of the intelligence surveillance programs.

EPIC has previously proposed amendments to the FISC's rules that would increase transparency and reporting of court opinions. In comments to the FISC in 2010, EPIC urged the Court to regularly publish its orders, opinions, or decisions. "In order to fully understand how FISA is being interpreted by the Court and to determine whether the Court has been an objective check to an overzealous government, the public and Congress need access to the Court's rulings." While facts, sources, or methods may be properly classified, legal analysis and judicial opinions should be shared with the public. Secret law is contrary to values and needs of democratic government.

The publication of significant FISC opinions, including those already provided to congressional intelligence and judiciary committees, should be mandatory and subject to a prompt declassification process.

Make the FISC More Adversarial

In addition to the proposals discussed above, EPIC also supports the creation of a &"special advocate" to bring adversarial proceedings to the FISC. President Obama has endorsed the creation of a FISC adversary that argues in favor of civil liberties and in the public interest, and prominent members of Congress have already introduced relevant legislation.


Pending Legislation

Legal Documents


News Stories

Share this page:

Support EPIC

EPIC relies on support from individual donors to pursue our work.

Defend Privacy. Support EPIC.