June18, 2013
The Guardian

FISA Court Oversight: A Look Inside a Secret and Empty Process

Obama and other NSA defenders insist there are robust limitations on surveillance but the documents show otherwise

by Glenn Greenwald

Since we began began publishing stories about the NSA's massive domestic spying apparatus, various NSA defenders - beginning with President Obama - have sought to assure the public that this is all done under robust judicial oversight. "When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls," he proclaimed on June 7 when responding to our story about the bulk collection of telephone records, adding that the program is "fully overseen" by "the Fisa court, a court specially put together to evaluate classified programs to make sure that the executive branch, or government generally, is not abusing them". Obama told Charlie Rose last night:

"What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls ... by law and by rule, and unless they ... go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it's always been, the same way when we were growing up and we were watching movies, you want to go set up a wiretap, you got to go to a judge, show probable cause."

The GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, told CNN that the NSA "is not listening to Americans' phone calls. If it did, it is illegal. It is breaking the law." Talking points issued by the House GOP in defense of the NSA claimed that surveillance law only "allows the Government to acquire foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S.-persons (foreign, non-Americans) located outside the United States."

The NSA's media defenders have similarly stressed that the NSA's eavesdropping and internet snooping requires warrants when it involves Americans. The Washington Post's Charles Lane told his readers: "the government needs a court-issued warrant, based on probable cause, to listen in on phone calls." The Post's David Ignatius told Post readers that NSA internet surveillance "is overseen by judges who sit on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court" and is "lawful and controlled". Tom Friedman told New York Times readers that before NSA analysts can invade the content of calls and emails, they "have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress."

This has become the most common theme for those defending NSA surveillance. But these claim are highly misleading, and in some cases outright false.

Top secret documents obtained by the Guardian illustrate what the Fisa court actually does - and does not do - when purporting to engage in "oversight" over the NSA's domestic spying. That process lacks many of the safeguards that Obama, the House GOP, and various media defenders of the NSA are trying to lead the public to believe exist. . . .


I. Put loyalty to the highest moral principles above loyalty to persons, party, or government department. . . ., "Code of Ethics for Government Service," 86th Congress, July 11, 1958

Eric Margolis, "Echelon - Uncle Sam is Listening," Toronto Sun, August 27, 2000

Trevor Aaronson, "How the FBI's Network of Informants Actually Created Most of the Terrorist Plots 'Foiled' in the US Since 9/11," Mother Jones, October 9, 2011

"The Surveillance Catalog: Where governments get their tools,", February 7, 2012

"Surveillance, Rendition, Assassination, War Under Obama," The Wisdom Fund, January 3, 2013

Peter Eisler and Susan Page, "3 NSA veterans speak out on whistle-blower: We told you so," USA TODAY, June 16, 2013

Glenn Greenwald and James Ball, "Revealed: the top secret rules that allow NSA to use US data without a warrant,", June 20, 2013

Lindsay Wise and Jonathan S. Landay, "Government could use metadata to map your every move," McClatchy, June 20, 2013

John Pilger, "Understanding the Latest Leaks Is Understanding the Rise of a New Fascism,", June 20, 2013

James Hurley, "Web Inventor Berners-Lee Warns Forces Are 'Trying To Take Control',", June 23, 2013

William Blum, "Snowden, the latest whistleblower to shed light on the US's rogue snooping establishment,", June 27, 2013

Jon Evans, "Tomorrow' s Surveillance: Everyone, Everywhere, All The Time,", June 29, 2013

"NSA slides explain the PRISM data-collection program,", June 29, 2013

Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Fidelius Schmid, Holger Stark and Jonathan Stock, "How the NSA Targets Germany and Europe,", July 1, 2013

Jennifer Martinez, "Reddit, Mozilla to stage Fourth of July protest against NSA spying,", July 2, 2013

Editorial: "Edward Snowden: a whistleblower, not a spy,", July 2, 2013

RT, July 10, 2013 -- NSA Blackmailing Obama?

[I had thought it was as clear as law can be that any person who has committed a political crime should be exempted from mandatory extradition even if a treaty existed imposed a duty on its parties to hand over individuals accused of serious criminal activity. To be sure, from the perspective of the United States government, Snowden's exposure of the PRISM surveillance program was a flagrant violation of the Espionage Act. But it was also as clearly a political crime as almost any undertaking can be. There was no violence involved or threatened, and no person can be harmed by the disclosures.--Richard Falk, "What am I missing in the Snowden affair?,", July 10, 2013]

Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, Laura Poitras, Spencer Ackerman and Dominic Rushe, "How Microsoft handed the NSA access to encrypted messages,", July 11, 2013

Spencer Ackerman, "NSA surveillance: narrow defeat for amendment to restrict data collection,", July 24, 2013

[". . . all an analyst has to do is enter an email address or an IP address, and it does two things. It searches that database and lets them listen to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you've entered, and it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address or that IP address do in the future."--Kari Rea, "Glenn Greenwald: Low-Level NSA Analysts Have 'Powerful and Invasive' Search Tool,", July 31, 2013]

Kara Brandeisky and Stephen Suen, "Has the Gov't Lied on Snooping? Let's Go to the Videotape,", July 30, 2013

Glenn Greenwald, "XKeyscore: NSA tool collects 'nearly everything a user does on the internet',", July 31, 2013

Marc Ambinder, "What the NSA's Massive Org Chart (Probably) Looks Like,", August 14, 2013

Simon Jenkins, "So the innocent have nothing to fear? After David Miranda we now know where this leads,", August 20, 2013

Glenn Greenwald, "NSA shares raw intelligence including Americans' data with Israel',", September 11, 2013

Glenn Greenwald, BBC HARDtalk, November 27, 2013

EDITORIAL: "Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower',", January 1, 2014

James Ball, "NSA collects millions of text messages daily in 'untargeted' global sweep,", January 16, 2014

Glenn Greenwald, "Obama's NSA 'reforms' are little more than a PR attempt to mollify the public,", January 17, 2014

Charlie Savage, "Watchdog Report Says N.S.A. Program Is Illegal and Should End,", January 23, 2014

Luke Harding, "How Edward Snowden went from loyal NSA contractor to whistleblower,", January 31, 2014

Glenn Greenwald, "How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations,", February 24, 2014

Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson, "The NSA Revelations All in One Chart,", February 24, 2014

Edward Snowden on German TV, 2015

Dan Froomkin, "How the NSA converts spoken words into searchable text,", May 5, 2015

Maggie Ybarra, "FBI admits no major cases cracked with Patriot Act snooping powers,", May 21, 2015

Sonali Kolhatkar, "Say It Plain: Stop Spying on Us,", June 4, 2015

Suzie Dawson, "US Used NZ Spies to Spy on Third Countries,", January 18, 2019

[Seven years after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the mass surveillance of Americans' telephone records, an appeals court has found the program was unlawful--Raphael Satter, "U.S. court - Mass surveillance program exposed by Snowden was illegal - and that the U.S. intelligence leaders who publicly defended it were not telling the truth.,", September, 2020]

[Police have used "Fog Reveal" to search hundreds of billions of records from 250 million mobile devices, and harnessed the data to create location analyses known among law enforcement as "patterns of life,"" according to thousands of pages of records about the company.--Garance Burke and Jason Dearon, "Tech tool offers police 'mass surveillance on a budget',", September 1, 2022]

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