United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

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The United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (or FISC) is a U.S. federal court authorized under 50 U.S.C. § 1803. It was established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). The FISC oversees requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the United States by federal police agencies (primarily the F.B.I.). The FISA and FISC were inspired by the recommendations of the Church Committee.[1]


FISA warrant

Each application for one of these surveillance warrants (called a FISA warrant) is made before an individual judge of the court. Like a grand jury, FISC is not an adversarial court: the federal government is the only party to its proceedings. However, the court may allow third parties to submit briefs as amici curiae. When the Attorney General determines that an emergency exists he may authorize the emergency employment of electronic surveillance before obtaining the necessary authorization from the FISA court, after which the Attorney General or his designee must notify a judge of the court not more than 72 hours after the Attorney General authorizes such surveillance.[2]

If an application is denied by one judge of the FISC, the federal government is not allowed to make the same application to a different judge of the FISC. Instead, denials must be appealed to the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review. Such appeals are rare: the first appeal from the FISC to the Court of Review was made in 2002, 24 years after the founding of the FISC.

It is also rare for FISA warrant requests to be turned down by the court. Through the end of 2004, 18,761 warrants were granted, while just five were rejected (many sources say four). Fewer than 200 requests had to be modified before being accepted, almost all of them in 2003 and 2004. The four known rejected requests were all from 2003, and all four were partially granted after being resubmitted for reconsideration by the government. Of the requests that had to be modified, few if any were before the year 2000. In subsequent years, according to journalist Joshua Micah Marshall, the breakdown was as follows:[3]

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