Rubber Stumped

Spying oversight


The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court is frequently accused of rubber-stamping government requests to collect data. Newly released FISA court documents reveal a worse problem: The court is making decisions based on inaccurate or misleading information provided by the very officials they're supposed to oversee.

These new revelations, which emerged from a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, show FISA judges frustrated to find that the National Security Agency (NSA) misled them about certain surveillance techniques. In 2009 the court was told that of the 17,000 "suspicious" phone numbers being used to query metadata information, only about 2,000 had passed any sort of test for the "reasonable, articulable suspicion" the court required.

And in 2011, the FISA court discovered that the NSA's process of gathering "upstream" Internet data-data gathered directly by interception from the Internet without the cooperation of service providers-brought in information from tens of thousands of transactions by Americans who were not under any sort of suspicion. Furthermore, the NSA's technology was unable to gather the data it was allowed to acquire without scooping up this excess information.

In both cases, the court demanded changes to minimize the violations. But in both cases, these violations went on for years before they were uncovered.