18 December 2005

Fact Sheet: Domestic Intelligence Wiretaps

Fact Sheet on Domestic Intelligence Wiretaps December 17, 2005

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was enacted in 1978 to provide a statutory framework for eavesdropping on individuals within the United States, including U.S. citizens, who are not suspected of having committed a crime but who are likely to be spies or members of terrorist organizations.

FISA established a secret court that could issue wiretap orders if the government showed probable cause that the individual to be tapped is an “agent of a foreign power,” meaning he or she is affiliated with a foreign government or terrorist organization. This is an easier standard to meet than the criminal wiretap standard, which requires that there be: (1) probable cause that the individual to be tapped has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, and (2) probable cause that communications concerning that crime will be obtained through the electronic surveillance.

In the 27 years since it was established, the FISA court has turned down only a handful of applications for wiretap orders. The number of approved FISA wiretap orders has jumped since September 11, 2001, with 1,754 FISA orders issued last year, up from 934 such orders in 2001.

FISA already addresses emergency situations where there is not time to get pre-approval from the court. It includes an emergency exception that permits government agents to install a wiretap and start monitoring phone and email conversations immediately, as long as they then go to the FISA court and get a court order within 72 hours.

FISA makes it a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, to conduct electronic surveillance except as provided for by statute. The only defense is for law government agents engaged in official duties conducting “surveillance authorized by and conducted pursuant to a search warrant or court order.” [50 U.S.C. § 1809]

Congress has specifically stated, in statute, that the criminal wiretap statute and FISA “shall be the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance . . . and the interception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted.” [18 U.S.C. § 2518(f)]

The target of a FISA wiretap is never given notice that he or she was subject to surveillance, unless the evidence obtained through the electronic surveillance is ultimately used against the target in a criminal trial.

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