When the USA Patriot Act was signed into law 45 days after the 9/11 attacks, it provided the government with sweeping new powers of surveillance and tore down many of the barriers that separated intelligence agencies from domestic law enforcement. At the heart of those changes was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, reports the Newark Star-Ledger. Wielding special authority to order secret surveillance of U.S. citizens and others suspected of being foreign agents, and operating outside the normal rules of the legal system, the shadowy court is a key component in the nation’s national-security infrastructure.
Created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the court was originally designed to end Watergate-era abuses, including former President Richard M. Nixon’s penchant for using domestic surveillance agencies to spy on political enemies in the name of national security. FISA represented a compromise between the government and civil libertarians. It provided a legal framework for federal agents to eavesdrop on people for national security purposes, but set up a court to approve and monitor surveillance operations. The trade-off was secrecy.