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Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978: The Role of Symbolic Politics

NCJ Number
Law & Policy Volume: 24 Issue: 3 Dated: September 2002 Pages: 269-298
Barbara A. Stolz
Date Published
September 2002
30 pages
This article discusses the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) from the perspective of symbolic politics.
The FISA has governed the use of electronic surveillance and physical searches to gather foreign counterintelligence (FCI) and foreign intelligence (FI) since 1978. The Act was enacted during the Watergate-era civil liberties violations of the privacy of United States citizens in the name of national security. It established a statutory framework for the authorization of electronic surveillance in order to gather FCI and FI information for national security purposes. Since the events of September 11, 2001, FISA has drawn more attention because legislation was passed to modify FISA’s provisions. These provisions involved the authorization of “roving wiretaps” that would allow investigators to conduct surveillance on a phone a suspect terrorist might use rather than a specific phone. Also, the provisions allowed criminal investigators and intelligence officers to share grand jury and wiretap transcripts. In 1978, concern focused on how to respond to abuse of government authority in order to preserve and protect threatened civil liberties and privacy, while still protecting national security. In 2001, for many citizens and legislators, the primary threat was to the national security and the concern was how to respond to that threat and to protect the physical security of U.S. citizens, focusing secondarily on civil liberties and privacy. The process underlying the 2001 amendments reflects the symbolic function of reassurance, but the moral-educative, educative, and enhancement of officeholder popularity functions also played roles. Symbolic politics is one of several frameworks that may be used to study policymaking. It does not explain all aspects of the policymaking process or provisions of a particular legislative proposal. The framework does not consider other sociological influences on law and lawmaking, such as class conflict or globalization. 18 notes, 46 references