Growing out of the Watergate scandal when federal resources were used to spy on domestic political and activist groups, The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. As its title suggests, the law was created to “provide judicial and congressional oversight of the government’s covert surveillance activities of foreign entities and individuals in the U.S., while maintaining the secrecy needed to protect national security.”
Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the George W. Bush Administration began a series of questionable secret surveillance practices, including warrantless domestic wiretapping. Major amendments to FISA were subsequently made to legitimize and empower some of these secret operations.
The FISA Amendments Act was enacted in 2008. It added a new Title VII to FISA, authorizing targeting of non-U.S. persons outside the U.S.. Section 702 spells out additional limitations to such surveillance. It was specifically stated that the surveillance must be conducted in a manner consistent with the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
President Barack Obama reauthorized the FISA Amendments Act in 2012 for five years before Edward Snowden made astonishing disclosures in 2013 about how the government manipulates its power to conduct secret, warrantless mass surveillance programs on U.S. persons in violation of their constitutional rights. Some of the subsequently known problems such as “about communications,” “backdoor searches,” “parallel construction” and “reverse target” are described in the blog titled “One Asian American’s Perspective on the FISA Amendments Act and Section 702.”
No person of Chinese origin was known to be part of the 9/11 or other terrorist attacks. Section 702 has always been claimed to be a vital tool to combat terrorism since 2008. However, soon after Section 702 became law, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) declared that economic espionage is a major security threat to the U.S. and started publicity campaigns with China as the major culprit.
In May 2017, the Committee of 100 presented a white paper, “Prosecuting ‘Chinese Spies’: An Empirical Analysis of the Economic Espionage Act” by legal scholar Andrew Kim of South Texas College of Law. Among other disturbing findings, the study showed an immediate spike in prosecutions against Asian Americans in 2008. A series of innocent naturalized Chinese Americans in private industry, federal government, and academia were accused of spying for China, but all of them were subsequently dismissed without an explanation, much less an apology, from the government.
Sherry Chen, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service, never returned to her position and was wrongfully terminated from her job in March 2016, one year after she was totally cleared of the criminal charges. Her appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) on wrongful employment termination, racial discrimination and retaliation by the Department of Commerce is pending a decision at this time.
Professor Xiaoxing Xi, former Interim Chair of the Physics Department at Temple University was also wrongfully prosecuted and eventually dismissed as an economic spy for China. He filed suit against FBI agent(s) for falsification of evidence and violations of his Fourth Amendment rights in May 2017, identifying FISA surveillance as a major contributing factor to the violations he faced. He was joined by his family and the American Civil Liberties Union
Despite the heroic efforts of these individuals to defend themselves against all odds, they and their families have already suffered devastating damages in legal expense, emotional trauma, and overall reputation.
When the FISA Amendments Act was last due for reauthorization in 2012, little was known about the warrantless, mass surveillance programs because they were shrouded in secrecy. Today, we know that even the FISA court had sharply criticized in its written opinion (declassified in April 2017) that the government reporting efforts were lacking in “institutional candor” and represent “a very serious Fourth Amendment issue.” This same FISA court has approved more than 99.5% of the government’s requests since the enactment of FISA in 1978.
FISA and its amendments are not the only laws subject to misuse and abuse by the authorities in the name of national security. The magnitude of their adverse implication and impact has been difficult to assess due to the inherent secrecy and complexity.
With what little that has been made public, we know that protection for privacy and civil liberty has been grossly inadequate under FISA and its amendments. The government must not continue to use innocent, law-abiding Asian Americans as “collateral damage,” convenient scapegoats, or targets of racial profiling without accountability.