The furtive US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court, which acts behind closed doors, takes the definition of rubber-stamp to an entirely new level. A court is supposed to be impartial or, at least, to give the appearance of being so. The FISC (another name for the FISA Court) does neither, as newly revealed data demonstrates.
In 2015, it continued a disturbing trend of caving into the whims of the government and its agencies, by failing to deny a single request for foreign surveillance. The fact that it didn’t see fit to deny a single submission is alarming, and is a testament to just how much civil liberties have suffered since 9/11 – especially in the last seven years of Obama’s supposed “most transparent administration in history.” That internet and telecommunication companies assist in the electronic surveillance is also a distressing reality.
Last year the court received 1457 petitions (mainly from the NSA and FBI) for authority to intercept communications, including email and phone calls, according to a Justice Department memo sent to leaders of relevant congressional committees last week. Not only did the court ultimately grant the applications, it inexplicably and surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly!) modified verbiage in the petitions in just 80 instances – or about a half-a-per cent of the time. Seems unlikely, but it’s true. This leaves civil liberty advocates scratching their heads. The court’s unbridled acquiescence has emboldened agencies to ramp up their assault on personal freedom to new highs each year in the Patriot Act era.
Dwarfing the requests for electronic surveillance were the incidences of applications for National Security Letters (NSLs). NSLs are a type of subpoena authority used to compel internet and telecommunications firms to hand over customers’ data, such as web browsing history, email addresses, and subscriber information. These FBI-initiated requests totaled an astonishingly massive 48,642!
Of this amount, more than 9,000 were made on US citizens or legal immigrants. Most of the time, they are accompanied by an open-ended gag order issued by the Justice Department, barring companies from disclosing the contents of the demand for customer data. This almost seems unconstitutional, but in this kowtowing to law enforcement climate, it is apparently de rigueur.
A disturbing reality is that these secretive machinations go on unceasingly, and to most citizens unwittingly, as we are feted to circus-like public spectacles, such as that surrounding the Apple iPhone encryption debacle relating to the San Bernardino shootings. Upon reflection, it appears that law enforcement, in that instance the FBI, is seeking the the limelight not only to gauge the mood of the public, but because in making a public production on this issue, to deflect attention away from the ongoing daily eroding of civil rights as described above.
It’s almost like a subterfuge, to camouflage more flagrant deterioration of basic liberties. The result is akin to the “mission creep” of military in pursuit of an objective – a stretching of the limits or boundaries. This time, it is runaway electronic surveillance. Next, it will be warrantless surveillance, if an entity like the FISA court is allowed to operate with impunity and without oversight.