Laura K. Donohue is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and director of Georgetown’s Center on National Security and the Law.
The National Security Agency’s recently revealed surveillance programs undermine the purpose of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was established to prevent this kind of overreach. They violate the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure. And they underscore the dangers of growing executive power.
The intelligence community has a history of overreaching in the name of national security. In the mid-1970s, it came to light that, since the 1940s, the NSA had been collecting international telegraphic traffic from companies, in the process obtaining millions of Americans’ telegrams that were unrelated to foreign targets. From 1940 to 1973, the CIA and the FBI engaged in covert mail-opening programs that violated laws prohibiting the interception or opening of mail. The agencies also conducted warrantless “surreptitious entries,” breaking into targets’ offices and homes to photocopy or steal business records and personal documents. The Army Security Agency intercepted domestic radio communications. And the Army’s CONUS program placed more than 100,000 people under surveillance, including lawmakers and civil rights leaders.
After an extensive investigation of the agencies’ actions, Congress passed the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to limit sweeping collection of intelligence and create rigorous oversight. But 35 years later, the NSA is using this law and its subsequent amendments as legal grounds to run even more invasive programs than those that gave rise to the statute.
We’ve learned that in April, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) ordered Verizon to provide information on calls made by each subscriber over a three-month period. Over the past seven years, similar orders have been served continuously on AT&T, Sprint and other telecommunications providers.
Another program, PRISM, disclosed by the Guardian and The Washington Post, allows the NSA and the FBI to obtain online data including e-mails, photographs, documents and connection logs. The information that can be assembledabout any one person — much less organizations, social networks and entire communities — is staggering: What we do, think and believe.
The government defends the programs’ legality, saying they comply with FISA and its amendments. It may be right, but only because FISA has ceased to provide a meaningful constraint.
Under the traditional FISA, if the government wants to conduct electronic surveillance, it must make a classified application to a special court, identitying or describing the target. It must demonstrate probable cause that the target is a foreign power or an agent thereof, and that the facilities to be monitored will be used by the target.
In 2008, Congress added section 702 to the statute, allowing the government to use electronic surveillance to collect foreign intelligence on non-U.S. persons it reasonably believes are abroad, without a court order for each target. A U.S. citizen may not intentionally be targeted.