US Secret Surveillance Court Approves All Domestic Spying Requests For A Second Year In A Row

from the these-may-be-secrets-but-they're-no-surprises dept

For the second year running, all snooping-on-citizens requests have been granted by our nation’s most secret court, the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

A secretive federal court last year approved all of the 1,856 requests to search or electronically surveil people within the United States “for foreign intelligence purposes,” the Justice Department reported this week.

The 2012 figures represent a 5 percent bump from the prior year, when no requests were denied either.

This surveillance was supposed to be limited to American citizens in contact with entities outside of the United States, but requesters found that adding the words “Al Qaeda” into the mix allowed eavesdropping on email and phone calls that never leave the country. This being a secret court, one running without oversight and immune from lawsuits, it seems operatives can request pretty much anything and have it approved. It’s the ultimate rubber stamp process and one that can be asked for after the fact. Even a still-theoretical rejection can’t slow down the spying.

The legislation does not require the government to identify the target or facility to be monitored. It can begin surveillance a week before making the request to the secret court, and the surveillance can continue during the appeals process if, in a rare case, the spy court rejects the surveillance application.

On the bright less oppressively gloomy side, there has been a slight reduction in National Security Letters, those wonderful sheets of paper law enforcement and security agencies use to compel pretty much any business (ISPs, banks, credit agencies, etc.) to hand over as much data on the named citizen as possible.

The same Justice Department report this week said the government issued 15,229 National Security Letters last year, down from 16,511 in 2011.

We’ll have to see how much this number tails off in 2013 considering a federal judge ruled these letters unconstitutional in March. There’s no reason to stop writing these letters quite yet, though. The ruling has been stayed for 90 days pending the administration’s appeal. Given the track record of this administration (and the last), one would expect these letters to live a full, healthy (and unconstitutional) life, perhaps revived by an Executive Order or some sort of “national safety/security” exemption.

On top of the usual concerns about increased surveillance of American citizens is the fact that this 2-page “report” gives us no useful information about whether all of this spying is actually having any impact in the War on Terror.

As an instrument of public oversight, the annual reports on FISA are only minimally informative. They register gross levels of activity, but they provide no measures of quality, performance or significance. Neither counterintelligence successes nor failures can be discerned from the reports. Nor can one conclude from the data presented that the FISA process is functioning as intended, or that it needs to be curbed or refined.

The less data there is available, the fewer questions there are to answer. Right now, there’s plenty of questions, but until the courts force the issue (a route that doesn’t look terribly promising, despite the recent decision on National Security Letters), these questions can be safely ignored.

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Comments on “US Secret Surveillance Court Approves All Domestic Spying Requests For A Second Year In A Row”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Guilty Until Proven Innocent Is Just The Price We Pay For A Free Society

?‘Guilty Until Proven Innocent’ Is Just The Price We Pay For A ‘Free Society’? by Tim Cushing, Techdirt, May 8, 2013

Using a zero tolerance approach to track domestic terrorists online is the only reasonable way to analyze online threats these days, especially after the Boston Marathon bombing and news that the suspects had subsequently planned to target Times Square in Manhattan, Mullins says. The way law enforcement agencies approach online activity that appears sinister is this: ?If you?re not a terrorist, if you?re not a threat, prove it,? he says.

?This is the price you pay to live in free society right now. It?s just the way it is,? Mullins adds.

You think that attitude only exists at the NYPD sergeants’ level?

It goes all the way up.

The FISA court rubberstamp is just a cog in the meatgrinder.

Wolfy says:

What you Obama bashers seem to be forgetting, is that during Bush’s rule, the rethugs politicized just about every federal agency they could. If you’ll recall there was finally a bit of a hue and cry about eight or so top lawyers at Justice being fired for “political reasons”… meaning they were left-leaning. That went on in every department for eight years. Obama has not seemed to have done anything to reverse that situation, so, as a result, the DOJ is still heavily populated by right-wingers, based on the actions of the DOJ in the last few years.

michael arrington says:

here's a question

You quote Wired saying “It can begin surveillance a week before making the request to the secret court.” I wonder how they begin surveillance? All the companies have said they only comply with lawful requests, and the assumption is that’s a FISA order. But if the FISA order doesn’t happen until a week later, then they either aren’t getting the data or, ominously, they’re just checking a box or something saying they’ll be getting an order shortly (which is 100% likely to be granted).

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