FISC Reopens NSA Phone Surveillance Program

Despite the public’s hopes that the NSA’s telephone surveillance program would be deemed unconstitutional, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) recently gave the Agency the go-ahead to continue collecting and analyzing millions of Americans’ private phone records. However, the extension may only be temporary as the FISC only granted the NSA three more months of surveillance.

The heavily criticized surveillance program known as PRISM is the same one brought to light this past summer by Edward Snowden.  Since then, both the program and the NSA itself have come into question, leading to serious talks and even Congressional hearings regarding reforms to the government’s intelligence gathering procedures.

Despite hopes that the NSA program would end, the extension should come as no surprise, as the FISC has authorized PRISM 36 times over the past 6 years. Still, high-ranking government officials continue to contemplate an overhaul to the system that would take record collection out of the government’s hands and give the responsibility to the telephone companies or quasi-governmental agencies.  However, those changes are not likely to be immediate and would require a great deal of cooperation on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

Despite Americans’ obvious dissatisfaction with the NSA, Snowden continues to be a controversial figure for leaking information on PRISM.  Several major media outlets and some members of the federal government have called for clemency for the whistleblower who is still avoiding prosecution in Russia, but others have not been so quick to grant him a pardon.  Former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano voiced her opposition to the program, stating that Snowden caused “exacted quite a bit of damage” to the NSA and national security, and “did it in a way that violated the law.”

As stated before on this blog, any reforms to the NSA and its surveillance programs are still a long way away. There are serious procedural and practical roadblocks that will keep the NSA running as-is for the foreseeable future. It should come as no surprise that FISC continues to back PRISM.  Until the government can come up with a clear, concise plan to transfer intelligence gathering authority to other entities, Americans should expect the NSA’s current practices to continue.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

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