by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
fisa, fisc, oversight, surveillance

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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  1. identicon
    Rekrul, 8 May 2013 @ 3:18pm

    I'm surprised that Obama hasn't yet issued an executive order granting himself unlimited powers. It's clearly what he wants.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2013 @ 3:27pm


    I often wonder if the military had some sort of secret coup d'état during the Bush administration. It seems that civil rights went straight to hell in a hand basket ever since 9/11, and Obama's promises of an "Open Government" were just a bunch of political red herrings.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2013 @ 3:28pm

    That what non-adverserial courts produce

    DOJ attorney: ..., and that's our side of the case
    Judge: Defense?

    Judge: OK - prosecution motion granted.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2013 @ 3:32pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    anonymous dutch coward, 8 May 2013 @ 3:34pm

    cody wilson

    i understand cody wilson a lot better now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2013 @ 4:31pm

    The government should stop playing around in repressive regimes. They've been a bad influence.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Coyne Tibbets, 8 May 2013 @ 6:47pm

    Thump, Thump, Thump

    Come on: What part of "rubber stamp" don't you understand?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Lucy, 8 May 2013 @ 6:50pm

    Some rough math rounds the National Security Letters to about 58 per day using a Monday through Friday work week, or 7 every hour during a 40 hour work week, or 1 letter every 8 minutes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    MAC, 8 May 2013 @ 8:21pm


    "Those who are willing to trade Freedom for security deserve neither." - Benjamin Franklin

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 May 2013 @ 2:05am

    i dont know why the law enforcement agencies, government and courts dont just knock off everyone else and exist by themselves. think of the time and effort they would save!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    known coward, 9 May 2013 @ 5:08am

    i wouldnt mind it quite as much if they actually

    caught anybody, you know like like the Tsarnaev clan?

    Its bad enough to have to give up freedom, but you know maybe at least protect someone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Wolfy, 9 May 2013 @ 6:56am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Ninja (profile), 9 May 2013 @ 7:18am

    Where did you have secret courts that gave secret orders disregarding proper judicial process, Power balance and Constitutional rights again? Oh, any dictatorship has such things.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    michael arrington, 8 Jun 2013 @ 10:22pm

    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).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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