Federal Bureau of (Don’t) Investigate

I’m afraid of FISA.

It is a powerful, shadowy organization built around a law that few know about—it’s the kind of stuff that fuels paranoids, who may, in this case, actually have something to fear in regard to their civil rights.

FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) is a law that allows some spy guy or girl to grab an e-mail, tap a phone or eavesdrop on a conversation. No one will know, except for some federal agents and a few judges who meet in secret.

As if that’s not bad enough, the USA Patriot Act came along and expanded those powers. The FISA court that issues these orders meets and decides in secret, so we have no idea who is requesting the secret surveillance or how many orders are issued, and no one has the opportunity to contest an order. Ironically, the court doesn’t even report to Congress, the folks who drafted the law. There is no public oversight.

It’s all in the name of terrorism. The Patriot Act-FISA net is wide and meant to entrap terrorists, but that doesn’t mean its targets are always terrorists. It simply may be someone living here who is, or was, connected to a foreign country—someone like the subject of our cover story (“Patriot acts”) who once worked undercover overseas.

Federal prosecutors requested a court order that would allow federal agents to enter into a broad range of people’s computers and erase court documents that once were public in his case. Under the order, the FBI’s computer experts would seize what you and I got legally and erase it. FISA wasn’t applied in this case, and the judge rightfully ruled in public and said, in essence, no way.

The feds surely were interested in finding out what Lok Lau was up to and whether he was revealing previously secret information from his undercover FBI days in China. We have no idea if Lau was surveilled by the federal government, and we won’t know by asking the Justice Department. It doesn’t have to tell us a thing about FISA requests.