Congress introduced the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to make use of new technologies and to enable the intelligence community to obtain information vital to U.S. national security, while preventing the National Security Agency (NSA) and other federal intelligence-gathering entities from engaging in broad domestic surveillance. The legislature sought to prevent a recurrence of the abuses of the 1960s and 1970s that accompanied the Cold War and the rapid expansion in communications technologies.
Congress purposefully circumscribed the NSA’s authorities by limiting them to foreign intelligence gathering. It required that the target be a foreign power or an agent thereof, insisted that such claims be supported by probable cause, and heightened the protections afforded to the domestic collection of U.S. citizens’ information. Initially focused on electronic surveillance, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act gradually expanded over time to incorporate physical searches, pen registers and trap and trace, and business records and tangible goods. The addition of these provisions took place within the same general framing that Congress had adopted in enacting the legislation in the first place.
Documents related to the recently revealed telephony metadata program, conducted under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Act and its subsequent amendments, suggests that the National Security Agency is now interpreting the statutory provisions in a manner directly contrary to Congress’ intent. It reflects neither the particularization required by Congress prior to acquisition of information, nor the role anticipated by Congress for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) and Court of Review.
The specific legal reasoning offered in defense of the program, moreover, violates the statutory language in three important ways: (a) it contradicts the requirement the records sought “are relevant to an authorized investigation”; (b) it violates the statutory provision that requires that information sought could be obtained via subpoena duces tecum; and (c) it bypasses the statutory framing for pen registers and trap and trace devices. In addition, the program raises serious constitutional concerns. The FISC order amounts to a general warrant, which the Fourth Amendment is designed to preclude. Efforts by the government to save the program on grounds of third party doctrine are similarly unpersuasive in light of the unique circumstances of Smith v. Maryland, new technologies, and changed circumstances. An end to the telephony metadata program and FISA reform are necessary to bring surveillance operations and emerging technologies within the bounds of the Constitution.