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Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 - The First Five Years

NCJ Number
Date Published
32 pages
A U.S. Senate Committee review of the 5 years of experience with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) concludes that the act has achieved its principal objectives of enhancing U.S. intelligence capabilities while contributing to the protection of the constitutional rights and privacy interests of U.S. citizens.
FISA provided the first legislative authorization for wiretapping and other forms of electronic surveillance of foreign powers and foreign agents in this country and created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review and approve requests for such surveillances. Applications approved by the FISA Court rose from 319 in 1980 to 549 in 1983. Based on a detailed examination of these cases, the committee is convinced that the increase does not reflect any relaxation in strict provisions for the privacy of U.S. citizens. The principal agencies that use electronic surveillance under FISA, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, both feel that the act has benefited their intelligence collection efforts. FISA provides for several levels of review of each surveillance. Proposals are reviewed within the originating agency and in interagency consultation before they are submitted to the Attorney General or the FISA Court. Minimalization procedures limit collection and use of information about U.S. citizens and renewals of surveillance authorizations. Other Federal courts have reviewed several FISA surveillances, creating a body of public judicial precedents. Some technical revisions in FISA appear warranted if they could be considered without reopening debate on the act's basic framework. The committee does not recommend legislation to extend FISA's coverage to overseas surveillance. It does recommend some changes in the act's implementation and suggests the agencies most involved take measures to maintain continuity in the personnel who review FISA surveillance requests and monitor compliance with minimalization procedures. An analysis of the constitutional status of warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes is appended.