When Edward Snowden first went public, he did it by leaking a 4-page order from a secret court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA court. Founded in 1978 after the Watergate scandal and investigations by the Church Committee, the FISA court was supposed to be a bulwark against secret government surveillance. In 2006, it authorized the NSA call records program – the single largest domestic surveillance program in American history.
“The court” in Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial is a shadowy tribunal that tries (and executes) Josef K., the story’s protagonist, without informing him of the crime he’s charged with, the witnesses against him, or how he can defend himself. (Worth noting: The FISA court doesn’t “try” anyone. Also, it doesn’t kill people.)
Congress is debating a bill that would make the FISA court more transparent. In the meantime, can you tell the difference between the FISA court and Kafka’s court?
Alvaro Bedoya is executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law. From 2011 to 2014, he was chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, and to its then-chairman, Senator Al Franken.
Ben Sobel is a researcher and incoming Google Policy Fellow at the Center.