There is a super-secret spy court in Washington, D.C., which is unknown to most Americans but probably well-known to the Soviet Union. It passes judgment on intelligence agency requests to spy on Americans in this country.
The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created in 1976 following the Watergate era when “national security” was invoked to justify excessive domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens. It was charged with preventing such constitutional abuses.
The court, located in a lead-enclosed vault (to prevent it from being bugged) on the sixth floor of the Justice Department (not far from the Department’s Freedom of Information Act reading room), is unlike any other court in this country.
It isn’t listed as an official government operation; it doesn’t appear in the Government Organization Manual; it is not mentioned in the United States Court Directory.
The court’s decisions are never published; at the end of each year, it issues a two-sentence annual report. The first lists the number of applications, the second shows the number approved.
The court’s record is remarkable. Through 1981, it heard a total of 962 requests. It has issued 962 orders allowing electronic surveillance. Not one has been denied.
The secrecy surrounding the court is exceptional and if not ominous for a free society, at least comical.
One spokesman for the Justice Department acknowledged that the court exists but refused to say where.
“By now, most people are feeling a little bit silly about trying to preserve the secrecy of that arrangement,” said one senior department official, “Obviously, the Soviet Union knows about it, and it’s kind of silly to try to keep it a secret, but nobody can talk about it for the record.”
A search of media resources revealed only one mention of the court. This was a two-sentence description in a two-page article on the “hidden judiciary” which appeared in U.S. News World Report last November. The article, praising Administrative Law Judges, did not allude to the Court’s power to approve surveillance of American citizens.
San Francisco Examiner, 10/24/82, “America’s Super-secret Spy Court, by Laurence McQuillan; U.S. News & World Report, 11/1/82, “The ‘Hidden Judiciary’ and What It Does.”