The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is not exactly a place where journalists or members of the public can simply drop in and check out the latest hot case.
The super-secretive court, which sits on the third floor of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in downtown Washington, is housed in a secure vault of reinforced concrete and thick wood-and-metal doors. It’s here where the Justice Department and the FBI conduct some of their most highly classified business: requesting judicial permission to eavesdrop on the phone calls or email communications of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism or espionage.
No sign proclaims the title of the court outside its doors. But there are at least three conspicuous clues mounted next to the entrance that can tip people off that something major transpires behind those walls: a placard that says, “Access Restricted.” A biometric palm scanner. And, an electronic cipher lock where judges and their staff must enter a code.
The court’s existence has never been a secret since it was established 40 years ago by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which required that the government obtain warrants to eavesdrop on Americans in national security cases.
But the escalating feud over the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has directed heightened attention at the little-known tribunal.
Last week, House Republicans released a controversial three-and-a-half-page memo blasting the FBI for its application to the court to spy on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser and suspected Russian agent. The document, which had been declassified by President Trump, zeroed in on how the FBI’s warrant application relied on information from an ex-British spy but failed to tell the surveillance court that his research had been partly financed by the Democratic National Committee and lawyers for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Republicans contend that this omission proves that the Trump-Russia investigation is biased and illegitimate. Democrats, however, have argued that the Republican memo is itself rife with omissions and inaccuracies, and failed to include everything the FBI and Justice Department knew that prompted their probe.