FISA Annual Report Recedes in Importance

By May 1, 2014

For many years, the Justice Department’s annual report to Congress on the use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was a primary source of public information on intelligence surveillance activity and on the workings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Today, that is less true than ever before.

The latest annual report, released by DOJ yesterday, indicated that in 2013 the Government submitted 1,655 applications for electronic surveillance, physical search or both. Of the 1,588 applications that included electronic surveillance, none were denied by the Court. But that hardly provides an accurate sense of the scope or the scale of intelligence surveillance activity.

The significance of this information, and other statistical data on access to “business records” and the use of national security letters, has receded in the wake of the far more substantial disclosures of the post-Snowden era. For example, we now know that the bland term “business records” extends in principle to everyone’s telephone call records.

In truth, the annual DOJ reports to Congress were never very informative, and they never provided useful data that could inform public policy in a practical way. They represented a facade of transparency with little or no real content. Today, they are practically irrelevant.

More informative and altogether more important is the new website of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has recently been revamped.

Categories: Congress, Intelligence, Oversight