Proving that the secretive U.S. Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the government’s spying apparatus, a new Justice Dept. document shows that every single federal request for surveillance made in 2015 was approved.
Lauded by officials as an adequate check on snooping powers, the FISA court is a U.S. federal court established and authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 that oversese requests for surveillance warrants against foreign citizens inside the United States mostly made by the NSA and FBI.
The courts powers have evolved and expanded, especially since 9/11, to the point that it has been called “almost a parallel Supreme Court.” All of its proceedings and records are veiled from the pubic, though redacted documents do sometimes emerge.
According to a Justice Dept. memo, the court received 1,457 requests last year from the NSA and FBI for authority to intercept communications, including email and phone calls. None of those requests were denied, not even partially.
The practice is commonplace for the secret court. From 1979 to 2015, only 12 requests for surveillance warrants have been rejected compared to 38,365 being approved. That means the court only rejects surveillance requests .031 percent of the time.
The memo also reveals that the FBI issued 48,642 national security letters last year. The Letters invoke a type of administrative subpoena power that allows federal law enforcers to compel companies and individuals to turn over vast amounts of personal data without a warrant.
They are usually accompanied with a gag order that prevents the recipients from even privately acknowledging that they have been targeted. The majority of last year’s Security Letters sought data on foreigners, but around 20 percent were requests for obtaining information on domestic citizens.
According to the Justice Dept. memo, 31,863 Security Letter requests sought information on 2,053 foreigners, and 9,418 requests sought information on 3,746 U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.
Additionally, the FBI also made 7,361 National Security Letter requests for “subscriber information,” which includes names, addresses and billing records, of both 3,347 Americans and foreigners.
Civil liberties and privacy advocates have long criticized the secretive FISA court, especially since it was revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden that it approved controversial programs like PRISM and the phone records collection program.
Following the Snowden leaks, there has been push back against the governments unilateral authority in authorizing surveillance. Last year, the court responded by appointing five lawyers and attorneys with national security clearance – one who represents both Apple and Yahoo – to the court.
The measure was supposed to serve as a bulwark against the government’s surveillance requests and was adopted as part of the USA Freedom Act, which has done nothing to provide any significant reform. This is embodied by the data contained in the Justice Dept. memo confirming that zero surveillance requests were denied last year.