The NYT reports on 1800 requests, zero denials, and all in secret:
the FISA court hears from only one side in the case — the government — and its findings are almost never made public. A Court of Review is empaneled to hear appeals, but that is known to have happened only a handful of times in the court’s history, and no case has ever been taken to the Supreme Court. In fact, it is not clear in all circumstances whether Internet and phone companies that are turning over the reams of data even have the right to appear before the FISA court.
Created by Congress in 1978 as a check against wiretapping abuses by the government, the court meets in a secure, nondescript room in the federal courthouse in Washington. All of the current 11 judges, who serve seven-year terms, were appointed to the special court by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and 10 of them were nominated to the bench by Republican presidents. Most hail from districts outside the capital and come in rotating shifts to hear surveillance applications; a single judge signs most surveillance orders, which totaled nearly 1,800 last year. None of the requests from the intelligence agencies was denied…
The officials said one central concept connects a number of the court’s opinions. The judges have concluded that the mere collection of enormous volumes of “metadata” — facts like the time of phone calls and the numbers dialed, but not the content of conversations — does not violate the Fourth Amendment, as long as the government establishes a valid reason under national security regulations before taking the next step of actually examining the contents of an American’s communications.
This concept is rooted partly in the “special needs” provision the court has embraced. “The basic idea is that it’s O.K. to create this huge pond of data,” a third official said, “but you have to establish a reason to stick your pole in the water and start fishing.”
Under the new procedures passed by Congress in 2008 in the FISA Amendments Act, even the collection of metadata must be considered “relevant” to a terrorism investigation or other intelligence activities. The court has indicated that while individual pieces of data may not appear “relevant” to a terrorism investigation, the total picture that the bits of data create may in fact be relevant, according to the officials with knowledge of the decisions.
Let’s see. All your internet information, all your phone calls, credit card charges, and your locations at the time, and all the same information about your counterparties, including secret, shared email accounts that serve as dropboxes for private communications. That’s how they got the goods on Petraeus and his girlfriend. It’s the Chicago Way after all, and think of what they have on reporters and editors, congressman and senators, businessmen and union heads, and everyone on both sides thinking about running in 2016. You doubt this? Come on.
It’s a good plot for a movie. Sort of Three Days of the Condor, apparently without the murders. But there’s something missing. Most of the commentary on potential abuse of the NSA’s comprehensive database has focused on political corruption. It’s a big story and a good story, and no doubt it is going on. But there’s a bigger and better plotline as well. Money. Imagine every hedge fund senior staff getting the scrutiny that Stevie Cohen and his crew get. The senior Wall Street types, every Fortune 500 CEO and BOD, the Silicon Valley VC’s, the PE moguls, etc. And oh yes, here’s where the international reach of the NSA comes in.
The NSA’s surveillance captures international corporate communications, those of the global Forbes 400, and places like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, etc where insider trading and market manipulation are perhaps more the rule rather than the exception. Imagine knowing in advance that an investor was going to break the pound. Imagine knowing in advance what OPEC or the oil manipulators of 2008 were going to do. Or knowing about the bear raids on banks in 2007-2009 just before they happened. Do you keep the information or sell it to your unsavory friends? Who knows? We haven’t written the script yet, but we have a working title: Three Days of the Gondorff.