FISA Court Rejected Zero Surveillance Requests from NSA, FBI in 2015

Created: 02 May, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
2 min read

Last week, the release of a Justice Department memo revealed that a secretive court accepted every request in 2015.

According to a Reuters report, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), received 1,457 requests for foreign intelligence surveillance and did not reject a single one. The requests deal with email and telephone intercepts.

The court has long been an object of suspicion due to its secretive nature. Established in 1978 under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the FISC, or FISA Court, came under further scrutiny through the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden about the collection of data through its PRISM surveillance program.

According to Zack Whittaker at ZDNet.com, the FISA Court has been little other than a rubber stamp for the surveillance establishment:

"Since 1979 through to 2015, the last round of reporting figures, the court has approved 38,365 warrants but only rejected a dozen. That's a rejection rate of 0.031 percent."

The trend at the FISC may not change in the near future. On Friday, the FISC announced that D.C. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer will become its presiding judge. Collyer has a history of ruling in favor of the government, particularly in the case of whether government officials can be held responsible for deaths from drone strikes.

As part of the reforms sought by the USA Freedom Act, passed in 2015, was transparency for the secretive court, including an amicus panel to discuss civil liberty matters. However, the FISC normally only hears the case from the government.

Also detailed in the Justice Department memo is the generous use of National Security Letters (NSLs). According to the memo, the FBI requested 48,642 NSLs last year, 9,418 of which were for Americans. NSLs give subpoena power to government officials for the disclosure of personal and business records. The people and companies targeted by NSLs have a gag order on them and cannot discuss the matter with others. Opponents have called NSLs unconstitutional violations of free speech.

Surveillance policies have become highly contested political issues with the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001 and its subsequent revisions. The USA Freedom Act was initially touted by privacy advocates, but largely disappointed such activists in the end. The release of the Justice Department memo may yet instigate demands from the American public for further reforms.