Where Did FISA Come From

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was signed into law in 1978 after revelations made by theChurch Committee investigating the abuses of the Nixon administration. While Richard Nixon and members of his administration were caught and punished these abuses did not begin with the election of 1968. Look back to the 1950's and one will discover that both the CIA and the FBI had begun spying on ordinary Americans in earnest through the opening of ordinary mail.

Operation HT Lingual started some in the 1950's and shout down in 1973 intercepted, photographed and opened 215,000 pieces of mail without the knowledge of the United States Postal Service (USPS) or the private citizens whose mail was intercepted. Only the USPS has the authority under U.S. law to intercept mail for the purpose of criminal investigation called Mail Cover

In the United States, the United States Postal Service (USPS) regulations constitute the sole authority and procedure for initiating, processing, placing, and using mail covers, and are contained in Title 39, Code of Federal Regulations, Section 233.3 (39 CFR §233.3); and Section 213 of the USPS Administrative Support Manual.

Mail covers may not remain in effect for more than 120 days.[2]

As mail cover does not involve the reading of the mail but only information on the outside of the envelope or package that could be read by anyone seeing the item anyway, it is not considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, there has been criticism of the practice by some,[3] particularly due to the delay in mail the process might cause, though regulations prohibit mail cover from delaying mail.

Going to great lengths of concealment the CIA moved the intercepted mail by briefcase and in some cases stuffing it into coat pockets taking it a private room for further examination.

Opening of mail was just one small part of the domestic spying effort.

COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) was begun by the FBI in 1956 and shout down in 1971 for the sole purpose of investigating, infiltrating and disrupting organizations within the United States which the FBI believed were a threat to National Security. COINTELPRO's original mandate had been to "increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections" inside the Communist Party U.S.A. CONINTELPRO was soon expanded beyond this original mandate to include: Socialist Workers Party(1961), Klu Klux Klan(1964), Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam(1967)and the entire New Left which included community groups, the anti-war movement and religious groups(1968).

A later investigation by the Senate's Church Committee stated that
"COINTELPRO began in 1956, in part because of frustration with Supreme Court rulings limiting the Government's power to proceed overtly against dissident groups..."[1] Congress and several court cases[2] later concluded that the COINTELPRO operations against communist and socialist groups exceeded statutory limits on FBI activity and violated Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and association.

COINTELPRO was exposed when a group calling itself Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the FBI's Media Pennsylvania field office stealing over 1000 classified files.

CIA's "Family Jewels"

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed some of the contents of the "Family Jewels" in a front-page New York Times article in December 1974, in which he reported that:

The Central Intelligence Agency, directly violating its charter, conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups in the United States according to well-placed Government sources.[4]

Additional details of the contents trickled out over the years, but requests by journalists and historians for access to the documents under the Freedom of Information Act were long denied. Finally, in June 2007, CIA Director Michael Hayden announced that the documents would released to the public.[1] A six-page summary of the reports was made available at the National Security Archive (based at George Washington University), with the following introduction:

The Central Intelligence Agency violated its charter for 25 years until revelations of illegal wiretapping, domestic surveillance, assassination plots, and human experimentation led to official investigations and reforms in the 1970s.

The Church Committee also uncovered



The Committee finds that information has been collected and disseminated in order to serve the purely political interests of an intelligence agency or the administration, and to influence social policy and political action.


(a) White House officials have requested and obtained politically useful information from the FBI, including information on the activities of political opponents or critics.

(b) In some cases, political or personal information was not specifically requested, but was nevertheless collected and disseminated to administration officials as part of investigations they had requested. Neither the FBI nor the recipients differentiated in these cases between national security or law enforcement information and purely political intelligence.

(c) The FBI has also volunteered information to Presidents and their staffs, without having been asked for it, sometimes apparently to curry favor with the current administration. Similarly, the FBI has assembled intelligence on its critics and on political figures it believed might influence public attitudes or Congressional support.

(d) The FBI has also used intelligence as a vehicle for covert efforts to influence social policy and political action.

Elaboration of Findings

The FBI's ability to gather information without effective restraints gave it enormous power. That power was inevitably attractive to politicians, who could use information on opponents and critics for their own advantage, and was also an asset to the Bureau, which depended on politicians for support. In the political arena, as in other facets of American life touched by the intelligence community, the existence of unchecked power led to its abuse.

By providing politically useful information to the White House and congressional supporters, sometimes on demand and sometimes gratuitously, the Bureau buttressed its own position in the political structure. At the same time, the widespread -- and accurate -- belief in Congress and the administration that the Bureau had available to it, derogatory information on politicians and critics created what the late Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hale Boggs, called a "fear" of the Bureau:

The road to FISA is an interesting one in that its not just the CIA or the FBI that are involved. For reasons that can only be guessed at (That's not true.) the Pentagon through the U.S. Army was a major player in domestic surveillance. Christopher Pyle now a Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College exposed the their involvement.

Christopher H. Pyle learned while in the U.S. Army in the 1960s that "Army intelligence had 1,500 plainclothes agents watching every demonstration of 20 people or more throughout the United States". His disclosure of the Army's spying in January 1970 began the era we now call Watergate.

Just after George W. Bush assumed the presidency in January 2001 it appears that officials within the administration began contacting Americas major telecommunications companies in a effort to expanded the governments ability to collect information through electronic surveillance. Those to be spied upon weren't suspected or known terrorists nor where they part of any know criminal organization. George Bush wanted to spy on ordinary Americans because for them the rules didn't apply. It didn't matter that a law had been enacted to protect Americans from abuses of government or that these rights are further enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that was irrelevant what mattered was power. How to use it and keep it.

Today America has an administration which has moved the country to the very edge of being authoritarian without quite crossing that line. Will future administrations continue along this path or will they have the foresight and strength to pull it back from the edge and return it to the foundations upon which it originally rested: The Rule of Law.

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