Thanks to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden many more people in the US and world-wide are learning about extensive US-government surveillance and spying. There are publicly available numbers that show the reality of these problems are bigger than most think and most of this spying is happening with little or no judicial oversight.
Hundreds of Thousands Subject to Government Surveillance
The first reality is that hundreds of thousands of people in the US have been subject to government surveillance in each of the last few years. Government surveillance of people in the US is much more widespread than those in power want to admit. In the last three years alone about 5000 requests have been granted for complete electronic surveillance authorized by the secret FISA court. The FBI has authorized another 50,000 surveillance operations with National Security Letters in the last three years. The government admits that well over 300,000 people have had their phone calls intercepted by state and federal wiretaps in the last year alone. More than 50,000 government requests for internet information are received each year as reported by internet providers. And, remember, these are the publicly reported numbers so you can be confident there is a whole lot more going on which has not been publicly reported.
Courts Almost Never Deny Government Requests for Surveillance
The second reality is that there is little to no serious oversight or accountability by the courts of this surveillance. Government spy defenders keep suggesting the courts are looking carefully and rigorously at all this and only letting a tiny number of really bad people be spied on. Not true. Despite thousands of requests by the federal government to look deeply into people's lives, the secret federal FISA court turned down no requests at all in the last three years. The state and federal courts report on wiretap applications document over 2000 applications annually for surveillance, which authorize the interception of hundreds of thousands of calls and emails. The courts have turned down the government two times in the most recent report. FBI national security letters do not even have to be authorized by a court at all. The lack of Congressional oversight is plain to see but the lack of any judicial review of many of these surveillance actions and the very weak oversight where courts do review should concern anyone who cares about government accountability.
Let's break down the surveillance by the authority for spying.
In FISA Court Government Always Wins
The US government has tried to say the public should not worry about government scooping up hundreds of millions of phone calls and internet activities because no real information is disclosed unless it is authorized by what is called the FISA court. Therefore, you can trust us with this information.
The FISA Court, actually called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, is made up of ten federal judges who deliberate and decide in secret whether the government can gather and review millions of phone and internet records. This court, though I know and respect several of its members, cannot be considered an aggressive defender of constitutional rights and civil liberties.
Government lawyers go to these FISA judges in secret. Government lawyers present secret evidence in secret proceedings with no defense lawyer or public or press allowed and ask for secret orders allowing the government to secretly spy on people. Its opinions are secret. The part the public knows is a one-paragraph report, which is made every year of the number of applications and the number of denials by the court.
What is worse is that the judges in this secret court never turn the secret government lawyers down.
Over the last three years, the government has made 4,976 requests to the secret FISA court for permission to conduct electronic surveillance for foreign-intelligence purposes. But the really big FISA number is zero. Zero is the number of government requests to conduct electronic surveillance the FISA court has turned down in the last three years.
In 2012, the government asked for permission from the judges of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) 1,789 times to conduct electronic surveillance for foreign-intelligence purposes. There were zero denials. One time the government withdrew its request.
In 2011, the government asked FISA judges 1,676 times to conduct electronic surveillance for foreign-intelligence services. There were zero denials. The government withdrew two requests.
In 2010, the government asked FISA judges 1,511 times to conduct electronic surveillance for foreign-intelligence purposes. There were zero denials. The government withdrew five requests.
Not a bad record, huh? Nearly five thousand victories for those who want surveillance powers and no defeats is a record that should concern everyone who seeks to protect civil liberties.