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The Secret FISA Court: Rubber Stamping Our Rights By Philip Colangelo

September 17, 2012


Seven judges on a secret court have authorized all but one of over 7,500 requests to spy in the name of National Security. They meet in secret, with no published orders, opinions, or public record. Those spied on May never know of the intrusion. Now, Clinton has expanded the powers to include not only electronic, but physical searches.

Since its founding in 1978, a secret court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA rhymes with ice -a) has received 7,539 applications to authorize electronic surveillance within the U.S. In the name of national security, the court has approved all but one of these requests from the Justice Department on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. Each of these decisions was reached in secret, with no published orders, opinions, or public record. The people, organizations, or embassies spied on were not notified of either the hearing or the surveillance itself. The American Civil Liberties Union was not able to unearth a single instance in which the target of a FISA wiretap was allowed to review the initial application. Nor would the targets be offered any opportunity to see transcripts of the conversations taped by the government and explain their side of the story.

When Clinton signed Executive Order 12949 on February 9, the frightening mandate of the FISA, court was greatly expanded: It now has legal authority to approve black-bag operations to authorize Department of Justice (DoJ) requests to conduct physical as well as electronic searches, without obtaining a warrant in open court, without notifying the subject, without providing an inventory of items seized. The targets need not be under suspicion of committing a crime, but may be investigated when probable cause results solely from their associations or status: for example, belonging to, or aiding and abetting organizations deemed to pose a threat to U.S. national security. Furthermore, despite a lowered standard for applying the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure than is necessary in other U.S. courts, under the 1995 expansion, evidence gathered by the FISA court may now be used in criminal trials. Previously, evidence was collected and stockpiled solely for intelligence purposes.

Reportedly, the Clinton administration had not always been enthusiastic about expanding the court’s powers. Like its predecessors, it operated under the assumption that the executive already had inherent authority to exempt itself from Fourth Amendment constraints and could order warrantless searches to protect national security. Nonetheless, the government avoided allowing this inherent authority to be tested in the courts.

Then along came Aldrich Ames. The spy case proved a convenient vehicle on which to hitch expansion of state power. It also offered a glimpse at the state-of-the-art domestic counterintelligence techniques that might well be turned on an activist group near you. Following months of electronic and physical surveillance which included a break-in of Ames’ car and searches through his office and family trash FBI agents were finally turned loose in the early morning hours of October 9, 1993. They didn’t `pick’ locks like in the movies; they made their own keys. Among other agents in the FBI, the consensus was unanimous: The tech agents were geniuses.

Thanks to a warrant authorized by Attorney General Janet Reno, a team of agents from the sprawling National Security Division had permission to enter the Ames home in Arlington, Va. There was only one minor problem. The attorney general of the United States does not have the authority to order a warrantless physical search of a citizen’s home, argued Professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University National Law Center. The Aldrich Ames search in my view was obviously and egregiously unconstitutional.

Other civil liberties lawyers agree with this evaluation, and the Justice Department itself was concerned enough about the question to refer to this problem when it negotiated a deal with Ames in order to avoid trial. While Ames was sentenced to life in prison, his wife Rosario received five years. We didn’t get to the point of litigation, I regret to say, said Ames’ lawyer Plato Cacheris. The problem was that Ames very much wanted to see that his wife was treated a little more softly than he was being treated.

Now eager to put a stamp of judicial impartiality on the hazy executive branch doctrine of inherent authority, the Justice Department immediately got behind the bill to expand the FISA court’s power. Soon after Ames pleaded guilty last year to spying, administration officials began arguing that adherenceto traditional Fourth Amendment protections for American citizens would unduly frustrate counterintelligence efforts against spies operating in the U.S.

Physical searches to gather foreign intelligence depend on secrecy, argued Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick. If the existence of these searches were known to the foreign power targets, they would alter their activities to render the information useless. Gorelick went on to explain that A [traditional] search can only be made when there’s probable cause to believe a crime is involved, whereas a national-security search can be made at a substantially earlier stage. We often don’t know what we’re looking for when we go in, she observed.

The Price of Secrecy

The possibility of FISA-sanctioned fishing expeditions was only one of the potential abuses that alarmed legal scholars and people concerned with civil liberties. It’s absolutely ripe for abuse, said New York City defense lawyer Ron Kuby. There are hundreds of solidarity groups that American citizens work with, and all of those groups could be targets under FISA. 16 These groups and individuals, engaged in legitimate dissent and solidarity work with the victims of U.S. foreign policy around the world, fear that their First and Fourth Amendment rights will be eroded.

Others worry that under cover of secrecy, the court would exceed even its own broad legal mandate. Clearly the FISA court was strengthened to allow the government to conduct searches they would not be allowed to conduct under the traditional constitutional provisions, said Turley. That means the government could attempt and fail to secure a search warrant under traditional constitutional arguments, then go to the FISA court and convert the case artificially into a national security investigation and secure approval for the very same search.

In the post-Oklahoma bombing atmosphere, the temptation to broadly interpret national security to include homegrown terrorism is likely to increase. Defenders of the FISA court point out that there are lengthy provisions written into the original legislation to minimize the impact of FISA-authorized surveillance on innocent Americans.

While refusing to be specific, FBI Director Louis Freeh argues that national security is so important that it constitutes a special category. He testified before Congress that, “Because any discussion of the importance of FISA-based electronic surveillance would involve highly sensitive matters and highly classified information, suffice it to say that information derived from FISA electronic surveillance is critical to the president of the United States, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, the Department of Defense, and the State Department.

The Supreme Court, however, has never endorsed the concept of a national security exception for physical searches. In 1972, it ruled that the Fourth Amendment prohibits warrantless surveillance of domestic targets. The Court specifically warned that the danger to political dissent is acute where the Government attempts under so vague a concept as the power to protect “domestic security.”

But given the secrecy surrounding the FISA court, even finding a test case to challenge incursion on Fourth Amendment rights may be difficult. Most people surveilled under the authority of the court remain blissfully ignorant that a search has taken place.

Case in Point

Among the handful of FISA-tainted investigations that have become public is the prosecution of Khader Hamide and Michel Shehadeh of the so-called Los Angeles Eight for their membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In that case, Martin said, permanent residents whom the government sought to deport based on their First Amendment activities were informed that they had been subject to FISA surveillance. The government then secured a completely ex parte ruling that the surveillance was legal in a proceeding in which the [U.S.] residents were not even allowed to participate. That ruling then foreclosed forever any adversary hearing on the legality of the surveillance.

In another case, people not themselves targets of a FISA-authorized telephone tap were hauled into court for having the misfortune of calling somebody who was under electronic surveillance. In 1988, after activists Vernon Bellecourt, Bill Means, and Bob Brown phoned a member of the Peoples’ Committee for Libyan Students, they were ordered to testify before a grand jury investigating the group. When the three men refused to cooperate and testify even with immunity, they were slapped with a citation for contempt. James Cacheris was one of the federal judges who issued that citation in support of the FISA warrant. Five years later, he was appointed to the secret court. Complete article here.

Source: The Secret FISA Court: Rubber Stamping Our Rights By Philip Colangelo Covert Action Quarterly 11-27-00

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