On the first Saturday in April of 2002, the temperature in Washington, D.C., had taken a dive. Tourists were bundled up against the cold, and the cherry trees along the Tidal Basin were fast losing their blossoms to the biting winds. But a few miles to the south, in the Dowden Terrace neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, the chilly weather was not deterring Royce C. Lamberth, a bald and burly Texan, from mowing his lawn. He stopped only when four cars filled with FBI agents suddenly pulled up in front of his house. The agents were there not to arrest him but to request an emergency court hearing to obtain seven top-secret warrants to eavesdrop on Americans.
"'He's in the Backseat!'" (April 2006)
The NSA searches the world's airwaves for faint whispers of suicide bombers and elusive terrorists. One Sunday in November of 2002, its listeners scored a rare hit. By James Bamford
As the presiding justice of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, Lamberth had become accustomed to holding the secret hearings in his living room. “My wife, Janis … has to go upstairs because she doesn’t have a top-secret clearance,” he noted in a speech to a group of Texas lawyers. “My beloved cocker spaniel, Taffy, however, remains at my side on the assumption that the surveillance targets cannot make her talk. The FBI knows Taffy well. They frequently play with her while I read some of those voluminous tomes at home.” FBI agents will even knock on the judge’s door in the middle of the night. “On the night of the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa, I started the first emergency hearings in my living room at 3:00 a.m.,” recalled Lamberth. “From the outset, the FBI suspected bin Laden, and the surveillances I approved that night and in the ensuing days and weeks all ended up being critical evidence at the trial in New York.
“The FISA court is probably the least-known court in Washington,” added Lamberth, who stepped down from it in 2002, at the end of his seven-year term, “but it has become one of the most important.” Conceived in the aftermath of Watergate, the FISA court traces its origins to the mid-1970s, when the Senate’s Church Committee investigated the intelligence community and the Nixon White House. The panel, chaired by Idaho Democrat Frank Church, exposed a long pattern of abuse, and its work led to bipartisan legislation aimed at preventing a president from unilaterally directing the National Security Agency or the FBI to spy on American citizens. This legislation, the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, established the FISA court—made up of eleven judges handpicked by the chief justice of the United States—as a secret part of the federal judiciary. The court’s job is to decide whether to grant warrants requested by the NSA or the FBI to monitor communications of American citizens and legal residents. The law allows the government up to three days after it starts eavesdropping to ask for a warrant; every violation of FISA carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Between May 18, 1979, when the court opened for business, until the end of 2004, it granted 18,742 NSA and FBI applications; it turned down only four outright.