For the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court To Be Transparent, You'd Need X-Ray Specs


X-Ray Specs
Curious Goods

Remember the advertisements in the back of comic books promising bulging muscles in no time, potato-shooting guns and other unlikely attractions? To my taste, the ads that promised the most and delivered the least touted X-Ray Specs, with the sometimes explicit assurance that they'd let you see through clothing. Sadly, they didn't. But a working model delivering true Supermanish sees-through-walls vision is what it would take to render the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court transparent, despite President Obama's empty assurances to the contrary.

As Jacob Sullum and Ed Krayewski have noted, President Obama sat down with Charlie Rose the other day to assure America that the surveillance state is a swell thing. Loss of privacy? Hey, everything is a tradeoff! Security!

And then, Charlie Rose asked about the process:

Rose: Should this be transparent in some way?

Obama: It is transparent. That's why we set up the FISA court.

As Jacob pointed out, "That would be the secret court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the decisions of which are shielded from public view." But just how truly physically shielded the surveillance court actually is was revealed by the Washington Post three years ago, when its new digs were constructed.

Wrote Del Quentin Wilber for the Post:

First, the workers encased the room in reinforced concrete. Then came the thick wood-and-metal doors that seal into the walls. Behind those walls they labored in secret for two years, building a courtroom, judge's chambers and clerk's offices. The only sign that they were done came recently, when biometric hand scanners and green "Restricted Access" placards were placed at the entrances.

What workers have finally completed—or perhaps not; few really know, and none would say—is the nation's most secure courtroom for its most secretive court. In coming days, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will move from its current base at the Justice Department and settle into a new $2 million home just off a public hallway in the District's federal courthouse.

If the federal government had hung a sign on the door reading, "Not So Transparent," it couldn't be any clearer that the court is not intended to be subject to public scrutiny. Biometric hand scanners, concrete walls and restricted access all scream "secret" as loudly as can be heard past the wood-and-metal doors.

The Post quoted U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth insisting that the new chambers were a demonstration that the court is no rubber stamp for the government, but it's hard to see how that can be true when we have no idea how it operates. What we do know is that the court rejected just 11 of the more than 33,900 surveillance requests received from the government over 33 years.

The gag orders that forbid surveillance order recipients from revealing that they've been ordered to surrender data to the government also suggest a little … opacity in the whole snooping operation. Google is suing for permission to simply reveal how many such orders it receives. Not the details, mind you, just how often the feds come sniffing around with FISA orders.

If you want to know what sort of deliberations lead to a vanishingly small rate of refusal of surveillance orders that recipients are forbidden to discuss, well, you'll need X-Ray Specs to see how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court goes about its business.

NEXT: The NSA's Phone Record Database Is 'Essential,' but We Can't Cite a Single Case Where That Was True

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  1. Okay, so if I want to vote someone out of office for abusing his power, I need to write a nice letter to the FISC? Am I understanding this correctly?

    1. Instead of voting, H.L. Mencken had suggested a system whereby you could beat up a politician or state agent right on the spot.

      It wouldn’t mean you were immune, but if in a trial, if it turns out you were right, then you’d be acquitted, if not, then you were charged as expected.

      1. I mean *convicted*

      2. I say we bring back some form of ostracism.

        Another thing I don’t get is why we don’t have recall at the federal level.

        1. Ostrichism was abandoned for good reason, ProLib. Those things can kick with 2000 psi of force and they peck the shit out of their constituents. We’re better off with the ostriches out of power.

          1. I thought ?sterreichism was those funny mustaches went out of style.

            1. *abandoned because* Ach mein Gott!

          2. I think you meant ?sterreichism, which has been discredited since the 1940s.

            1. Don’t sweat getting pwned ProL. You are still pretty sharp for a guy your age.

              1. I have to admit, I’m surprised. I thought I had gone full obscure.

                1. Heh, well I do live next door, so not really obscure here.

                  1. That’s true. In fact, you’re in part of the former empire, right?

                    1. Well, yeah. We try not to think about that and by we I mean the Czechs because my ancestors were mostly pig farmers in Ireland at the time.

          3. As a supporter of the Guns and Dope Party, the hell with you. Equal rights for ostriches! One third of Congress should be ostriches!

            1. Thank God, someone got in a Robert Anton Wilson reference.

              Every Man, Woman and Ostrich is a Tsar!

        2. Ost racism – well, yes, East European racism is a bit of a …wait, what?

      3. Are you trying to summon everyone’s favorite sophist?

    2. Are you sarcastically questioning the transparency and accountability of this administration?

      Praetorians, seize this traitor!

  2. “”””building a courtroom”””

    Why do they need a courtroom, there is no trial, their is no defense attorney, the people being spied on don’t even know they are being spied on.

    Or is this for when they expand to having secret trials at their secret court.

    1. Because these guys can’t just do their work in a normal office. They need that 2 million dollar bunker! It’s essential for their work!

  3. Thirty years ago, this stuff would have been deemed too ridiculous to be used in a salable novel.

    1. Chief, I demand the Cones of Silence.

  4. Star Chamber, baby! Isn’t government grand? This is what government leads to, always. Enjoy!

    1. Well, they do get to wear togas. I understand Kubrick used the FISC as a model for that orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut.

      1. Is that worth watching? I sat through the documentary playing on HBO about that Russian female punk performance group for the scene in the biology museum. Fortunately it occurred about 1/3rd through or else I’d say it wasn’t worth it.

        1. Well, it depends on how much of a Kubrick fan you are and how much you like Nicole Kidman.

  5. Not that it matters, but I am not sure if Obama called the FISA court transparent because he is that dishonest or just that stupid. Dishonesty is my first reaction. But you really shouldn’t discount that he actually has no idea how FISA courts work and thinks they are transparent. If there is one thing Obama has shown during his four and a half years in office, he really is as stupid as you think he is.

    1. Obviously, there’s nothing remotely transparent about it, being conducted in secret. In theory, it’s supposed to provide a check on executive power, but it clearly does no such thing.

      1. You could call it a check. But you can’t call it transparent. And moreover, since the government’s record is 1700+ to 1, you can’t call it a check either. It is a secret rubber stamp.

        1. No, it isn’t a check except on paper. Really thin paper.

          1. So thin that’s it’s transparent?

    2. I told you yesterday.

      Transparent to these people means, “We told a judge, and a couple of Congressmen.”

      Because only the political class counts.

      It doesn’t matter how opaque the program is to you or I, because you and I don’t count.

      1. yeah. That Obama thought “well it is transparent to me” and thinks that means it is “transparent” is another likely possibility.

    3. My vote is that he doesn’t know what the word “transparent” means in a political context. It was just some liberal buzzword he picked up cause it made him sound intellectual and shit.

      1. No, he’s right. See this from the definition of transparent: “4. easily seen through, recognized, or detected: transparent excuses.”

    4. He’s dishonest and stupid.

  6. “”‘rejected just 11 of the more than 33,900 surveillance requests”””

    How much you want to bet that the rejected 11 were rejected because they used the wrong forms or had some typos.

    1. I would love to know what the 11 were. I guess those were the ones that listed the Tea Party leaders by name rather than just by organization.

    2. And IIRC, only 6 were actually completely denied. 2 of the rejections were partial rejections, and 3 more were approved after being modified and re-submitted.

    3. This sort of cynicism disgusts me.

      I’m sure they were rejected because they were known, either directly or indirectly, to members of the court, and those members of the court could personally vouch for those individual’s patriotism, making the surveillance requests superfluous.

      1. Or they were just requests to spy on hot celebrities.

    4. the court rejected just 11 of the more than 33,900 surveillance requests received from the government over 33 years

      I would be curious to know how this compares with the rejection rate for requests for warrants in general. It seems to me that any judge known for actually examining and questioning applications for warrants would simply no longer be a judge ever asked to approve warrants. Add to that that so many judges come from the prosecution side of the bar where the assumption is that a suspect is guilty until proven innocent and the general belief that justice is blind and that therefore innocent people have nothing to fear from being temporarily inconvenienced by being mistakenly suspected and you have a system where it is rather rare to have warrant applications denied.

      If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear because the government only suspects those who have something to hide.

  7. Is anyone else getting a banner ad “paid for by the SEIU” asking you to tell Google to be responsible and pay for a security team?

    1. I’m getting a “See Ron Paul Live!” banner. Apparently he has joined a touring band.

    2. I visit H&R with only cached images set to load. I don’t get any of the ads.

  8. Glenn Greenwald’s latest article, courtesy of new info from Snowden, completely destroys the notion that the FISA courts provide any degree of oversight, at all. Basically, NSA analysts have free reign to spy on anyone, anywhere, at any time, and the courts just take their word that they are obeying the law. And neither Congress or the courts have any idea who the NSA actually targets. FISA warrants are essentially blank checks.

    1. It is not like they would ever abuse it


      1. It’s different! That was BOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH. Our benevolent President Obama would never, EVER exceed his power in that way.

  9. That has to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard come out of Obama’s mouth. Right up there with “You didn’t build that.”

    Does he even know what the term “transparency” MEANS? I suspect not. Apparently, he just started saying it because it made him sound smart, without having any idea what the fuck he was talking about. And liberals smiled a lot and clapped when he used the word, so he kept doing it. Golly, all this transparency talk makes people vote for me, so I’m just gonna keep saying it!

    1. I think Fluffy probably nailed it. To people in government transparent means telling other top men. The public is supposed to trust that.

      1. That’s not the definition of “transparency” that anyone else is using.

    2. That secret courtroom? You didn’t build that.

  10. Transparent. I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

  11. Ted Cruz wins twitter:

  12. Does anyone else question the idea of a presidency for a country of 300 million?

    1. It’s occurred to me that even with this mess we have today, we’d be better off with some sort of regional governments. Between the states and the federal government that is.

      1. Wouldn’t we be better off if we just had state governments and basically a small federal bureaucracy to handle the national currency and foreign trade? Maybe something like an a confederation of states…

        1. Yes, of course I agree. I just meant even with this stupid bloat we have now, it would be better with some of the pwoer distributed.

      2. You mean giving the regional governors direct control over their territories? What will keep the local systems in line?

        1. Fear of the this drone-launching station.

    2. No. I think it would work fine if we didn’t elect megalomaniacs, and if we had some sort of document that gave the office specific powers and responsibilities. And if that document was actually adhered to.

      1. “… if that document was actually adhered to.”

        There is the problem right there. The constitution we have is just fine. The problem is that we have a fox guarding the hen house.

      2. In theory, if we had limited government and held politicians accountable, an insane person could do little real damage. It’s the power we’ve instilled in the office of president and in other parts of the government that’s the problem.

    3. Yeah, that’s why we tried this whole federalist system thingy. Didn’t work out too well though.

  13. “Obama: It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA court.”

    A secret court ruling on secret cases executed in secret according to secret interpretations of an unconstitutional law. Right.

    Could this shitweasel possibly be any more shitweasely? Fucking amazing.
    How is it that this turd has any credibility whatsoever?

  14. Someday we’ll all be sentenced to death in a courtroom just like that. I hope it’s as fancy as it sounds.

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