The House Judiciary Committee is moving to seriously revamp FISA, the Act that was set up to deal with widespread privacy violations by the Federal government during the Nixon administration. It was intended to enable the government to surveil foreign persons and to limit the government’s surveillance to those foreign persons, and it includes a secretive and secret court to enable issuance of search warrants supporting that surveillance. The Act was promptly abused by the FBI and the Feds’ intelligence agencies to spy on us ordinary Americans, also, most recently during the runup to the Trump administration and continuing throughout that term, and since.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court earlier this year declassified a report revealing that FBI agents had inappropriately searched Americans’ phone records more than 270,000 times over a two year period, alarming civil liberty experts and generating bipartisan condemnation.
Bad as that abuse is, it’s also bad that that secret FISA court had been hiding that abuse behind its “classified” wall. This secret, Star Chamber court has been contributing its own abuses to the Act: it has acknowledged that the FBI had overtly lied to it on a number of those warrants, but then it had not only exacted no punishment, it continued blithely to accept FBI agents’ word on subsequent warrant applications. All of that is on top of the fundamental abuse that is the secret nature of this court, which aside from violating the spirit, if not the letter, of our court system, allows it to inflict those other abuses on us ordinary Americans.
Any suitable reform of the FISA Act must include disbanding altogether FISA’s Star Chamber Court. To the extent that the government worries about getting a warrant would tip off the bad guys—and it’s a legitimate concern—Article III courts and State courts all know how to seal and protect warrants when that’s…warranted.