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Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA Section 702, Executive Order 12333, and Section 215 of the Patriot Act): A Resource Page

This collection of resources focuses on three legal authorities that provide insufficient protection for the privacy rights of Americans and law-abiding citizens of other countries.

Published: October 25, 2018
The term “foreign intel­li­gence” conjures images of spies collect­ing inform­a­tion about our adversar­ies in other coun­tries. But Amer­ic­ans can get caught up in foreign intel­li­gence invest­ig­a­tions, too – whether they are targets them­selves, commu­nic­at­ing with targets, or simply send­ing e-mails that get stored or routed over­seas.
Since the 1970s, there have been laws in place to safe­guard the rights of Amer­ic­ans in foreign intel­li­gence invest­ig­a­tions. But some of these laws have been signi­fic­antly weakened since 9/11, while others were too weak to begin with. The inad­equacy of civil liber­ties protec­tions in the law creates enorm­ous poten­tial for abuse without any corres­pond­ing secur­ity bene­fit.
This collec­tion of resources focuses on three legal author­it­ies that provide insuf­fi­cient protec­tion for the privacy rights of Amer­ic­ans and law-abid­ing citizens of other coun­tries.
  • Section 702 of the Foreign Intel­li­gence Surveil­lance Act (FISA): This law was passed in 2008 to legal­ize Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s warrant­less wiretap­ping program. It removed the require­ment, in place since 1978, that the govern­ment obtain a warrant from the FISA Court when seek­ing to wiretap commu­nic­a­tions between a foreign target and an Amer­ican from inside the U.S. It also greatly broadened the scope of permiss­ible foreign targets to include private citizens not suspec­ted of any wrong­do­ing. The FISA Court must approve the general proced­ures for Section 702 surveil­lance but does not approve indi­vidual targets.

Although the target must be a foreigner over­seas, Section 702 surveil­lance is believed to result in the “incid­ental” collec­tion of millions of Amer­ic­ans’ commu­nic­a­tions. Agen­cies make broad use of these commu­nic­a­tions, notwith­stand­ing the fact that Section 702 requires them to “minim­ize” the reten­tion and shar­ing of Amer­ic­ans’ inform­a­tion. For instance, the FBI may comb through Section 702 data for inform­a­tion to use against Amer­ic­ans in ordin­ary crim­inal cases.

  • Exec­ut­ive Order 12333: This order, issued by Pres­id­ent Reagan in 1981, governs elec­tronic surveil­lance that the NSA conducts over­seas. Unlike NSA surveil­lance conduc­ted domest­ic­ally (which is regu­lated under Section 702), over­seas surveil­lance is not subject to any judi­cial over­sight, and congres­sional over­sight is limited.

While Exec­ut­ive Order 12333 prohib­its the target­ing of indi­vidual Amer­ic­ans, it allows “bulk collec­tion,” result­ing in the acquis­i­tion of massive amounts of Amer­ic­ans’ commu­nic­a­tions and other data. Under one program, for instance, the NSA collects and stores for 30 days all of the phone calls coming into and out of certain coun­tries, includ­ing the Bahamas.

  • Section 215 of the Patriot Act: Passed in the imme­di­ate after­math of 9/11, Section 215 allowed the NSA to acquire “any tangible thing” from third parties (such as tele­phone compan­ies) if it could persuade the FISA Court that the item was “relev­ant” to a foreign intel­li­gence invest­ig­a­tion. In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was using this author­ity to collect Amer­ic­ans’ tele­phone records in bulk. The FISA Court approved the collec­tion, inter­pret­ing Section 215 to permit the collec­tion of vast quant­it­ies of irrel­ev­ant records so long as there were relev­ant records buried within them.

In 2015, Congress enacted the USA Free­dom Act to end the NSA’s bulk collec­tion program. In its place, Congress created a new program under which the NSA can obtain the tele­phone records of suspec­ted terror­ists and anyone in contact with them. 


Section 702


What Went Wrong with the FISA Court (Eliza­beth Goitein & Faiza Patel, 2015)


Vote “NO” on Cloture – S. 139 (FISA Amend­ments Reau­thor­iz­a­tion Act) (Janu­ary 2018)

Compar­ison of Key Provi­sions of FISA Reau­thor­iz­a­tion Amend­ments Act (S. 139) and Amash/USA RIGHTS Act Amend­ment (Janu­ary 2018)

Redu­cing “Incid­ental” Collec­tion Under FISA Section 702: A Crit­ical Protec­tion for Amer­ic­ans (Octo­ber 2017)

Reform­ing Section 702: We Can Protect Amer­ic­ans’ Privacy and Protect Against Foreign Threats (August 2017)

How FISA Surveil­lance Affects Amer­ic­ans: In Search of Answers (Eliza­beth Goitein, Janu­ary 13, 2016)

Bren­nan Center Urges End of Surveil­lance Under Section 702 (April 11, 2014)


The Privacy and Civil Liber­ties Over­sight Board’s Disap­point­ing Report on PPD-28 Imple­ment­a­tion (Eliza­beth Goitein; Just Secur­ity; Octo­ber 24, 2018)

Amer­ic­ans’ Privacy at Stake as Second Circuit Hears Hasbajrami FISA Case (Eliza­beth Goitein; Just Secur­ity; August 24, 2018)

A Way Forward on Section 702 Quer­ies (Eliza­beth Goitein, Robert Litt; Just Secur­ity; Febru­ary 20, 2018)

Step Up On FISA Reform, Demo­crats (Eliza­beth Goitein; New York Daily News; Janu­ary 16, 2018)

Pelosi – Lead Fight to Block Govern­ment Spying on Amer­ic­ans (Eliza­beth Goitein; San Fran­cisco Chron­icle; Janu­ary 10, 2018)

Warrant­less Back­door Searches are Not “Busi­ness as Usual” (Eliza­beth Goitein and Michael German; Just Secur­ity; Decem­ber 1, 2017)

The USA Liberty Act — aka Don’t Let the Consti­tu­tional be the Enemy of the Uncon­sti­tu­tional (Eliza­beth Goitein; Just Secur­ity; Novem­ber 9, 2017). 

Congress Can’t Comprom­ise on Privacy (Eliza­beth Goitein; U.S. News & World Report; Novem­ber 6, 2017)

A Chance to Control Domestic Spying (Eliza­beth Goitein; New Repub­lic; Octo­ber 26, 2017)

Clos­ing Section 702's Front-Door Search Loop­hole: A Crit­ical Protec­tion for Amer­ic­ans (Eliza­beth Goitein; Just Secur­ity; Octo­ber 24, 2017)

'Beyond Snowden’ Falls Short on Upcom­ing Section 702 Re-author­iz­a­tion Debate (Eliza­beth Goitein; Lawfare; Septem­ber 7, 2017)

How to Spy on a Pres­id­ent (Eliza­beth Goitein; Boston Review; March 9, 2017)

The Same Repub­lic­ans Who Pushed for Invas­ive Surveil­lance Are Complain­ing About It Now (Eliza­beth Goitein; Slate; Febru­ary 16, 2017)

Hold­ing Sessions Account­able on Civil Liber­ties (Rachel Levin­son-Wald­man; Bren­nan Center; Janu­ary 9, 2017)

The Ninth Circuit’s Consti­tu­tional Detour in Mohamud (Eliza­beth Goitein; Just Secur­ity; Decem­ber 8, 2016)

Trump Will Have Wider Spying Powers than Anything J. Edgar Hoover Ever Imagined (Eliza­beth Goitein; Los Angeles Times; Decem­ber 7, 2016)

The 702 Reform Debate Is Just Heat­ing Up (Faiza Patel; Just Secur­ity; May 16, 2016)

The FBI’s Warrant­less Surveil­lance Back Door Just Opened a Little Wider (Eliza­beth Goitein; Just Secur­ity; April 21, 2016)

How FISA Surveil­lance Affects Amer­ic­ans: In Search of Answers (Eliza­beth Goitein; Bren­nan Center; Janu­ary 13, 2016)

Bulk Collec­tion Under Section 215 Has Ended… What’s Next? (Faiza Patel; Just Secur­ity; Novem­ber 30, 2015)

Safe Harbor and Reform­ing Section 702 (Faiza Patel; Just Secur­ity; Octo­ber 22, 2015)

The NSA’s Back­door Search Loop­hole (Eliza­beth Goitein; Boston Review; Novem­ber 14, 2013)

Video & Radio Inter­views:

Liza Goitein on Brad­Cast: Dems Lend Trump a Help­ing Hand on Warrant­less Surveil­lance of Amer­ic­ans (Janu­ary 17, 2018)

Congress Renews Warrant­less Surveil­lance – And Makes It Even Worse (Wired, Janu­ary 11, 2018)

Just Secur­ity Special Edition Podcast: Liza Goitein on Section 702's Reau­thor­iz­a­tion (Janu­ary 11, 2018)

Liza Goitein on Reas­onTV: End Warrant­less Deep State Spying: Don’t Renew 702 (Septem­ber 11, 2017)

Step­toe Cyber­law Podcast: Inter­view with Rebecca Richards and Eliza­beth Goitein (Septem­ber 11, 2017)

WJLA: ‘Full Meas­ure’: Surveil­lance State (July 2, 2017)

Liza Goitein on C-SPAN: FISA Reau­thor­iz­a­tion (June 27, 2017)

Eliza­beth Goitein on CSPAN2: Future of FISA (June 5, 2017)

Liza Goitein on Tech Policy Podcast: NSA Checks Itself? (May 4, 2017)

Liza Goitein on All Things Considered: What is Section 702? (April 24, 2017)

Liza Goitein on All Things Considered: Unmask­ing 101 (April 24, 2017)

Liza Goitein on WNYC: Section 702 (March 27, 2017)

Eliza­beth Goitein on Fox Busi­ness: Privacy and Secur­ity (March 23, 2017)

Inter­view: Michael German with Edward Snowden at Computers Free­dom Privacy 2015 (Octo­ber 12, 2015)

Podcast: What Went Wrong With the FISA Court? (April 2, 2015)

Inter­view: Michael German with Fred­er­ick A.O. Schwarz, Jr. (August 19, 2014)

State­ments, Press Releases, & Testi­mony:

U.S. Senate Passes Bill Legal­iz­ing Warrant­less Searches of Amer­ic­ans’ Emails, Phone Calls (Janu­ary 18, 2018)

U.S. House Votes to Author­ize Warrant­less Domestic Spying on Amer­ic­ans (Janu­ary 11, 2018)

Coali­tion Letter on Section 702 Legis­la­tion (Decem­ber 20, 2017)

Senat­ors Leahy and Lee Intro­duce Bill to Reform Section 702 of Foreign Intel­li­gence Surveil­lance Act (Novem­ber 17, 2017)

Experts Avail­able: House Judi­ciary Commit­tee Votes to Permit Warrant­less Surveil­lance of Amer­ic­ans (Novem­ber 8, 2017)

In Advance of Senate Intel­li­gence Commit­tee Markup, Sens. Wyden and Paul Intro­duce Bill to Reform Section 702 of FISA (Octo­ber 24, 2017)

Letter to Senate Regard­ing FISA Section 702 Reau­thor­iz­a­tion (Septem­ber 7, 2017)

Testi­mony on “The FISA Amend­ments Act: Reau­thor­iz­ing Amer­ica’s Vital National Secur­ity Author­ity and Protect­ing Privacy and Civil Liber­ties” before the Senate Commit­tee on the Judi­ciary (Eliza­beth Goitein, June 27, 2017)

Letter to Director of National Intel­li­gence Dan Coats (June 13, 2017)

Testi­mony on Section 702 Reform before the House Commit­tee on the Judi­ciary (Eliza­beth Goitein, March 1, 2017)

Testi­mony on “Over­sight and Reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the FISA Amend­ments Act” Before the Senate Commit­tee on the Judi­ciary (Eliza­beth Goitein, May 10, 2016)

U.S. House Judi­ciary Commit­tee Members Call on Director of National Intel­li­gence to Disclose Surveil­lance Data (April 22, 2016)

Bren­nan Center, Civil Liber­ties Groups Press Director of National Intel­li­gence for Answers on Section 702 Surveil­lance (Janu­ary 13, 2016)

Letter to the Director of National Intel­li­gence (Janu­ary 13, 2016)

Letter from Office of the Director of National Intel­li­gence (Decem­ber 23, 2015)

How Many Amer­ic­ans are Swept Up in NSA’s Foreign Intel­li­gence Surveil­lance? (Octo­ber 29, 2015)


Exec­ut­ive Order 12333:


Over­seas Surveil­lance in an Inter­con­nec­ted World (Amos Toh, Faiza Patel, & Eliza­beth Goitein, 2016)


Bren­nan Center Submits Comments on PCLOB’s 12333 Plan (June 17, 2015)

Letter to the Director of National Intel­li­gence and the Director of the National Secur­ity Agency (April 7, 2016)


Obama’s Surveil­lance Reform Prom­ises, One Year Later (Eliza­beth Goitein; Boston Review; April 2, 2015)


The Bren­nan Center for Justice & Just Secur­ity present: Over­seas Surveil­lance in an Inter­con­nec­ted World: Under­stand­ing Exec­ut­ive Order 12333 and its Reach (March 17, 2016)

State­ments & Press Releases:

Groups Ask the NSA to Halt Plans to Weaken Privacy Protec­tions for Amer­ic­ans (April 7, 2016)

New Report: NSA’s Over­seas Surveil­lance Activ­it­ies Pose Major Privacy Risks to Amer­ic­ans, Have Little Over­sight (March 16, 2016)


Section 215 and Bulk Collec­tion:


Are They Allowed to Do That? A Break­down of Selec­ted Govern­ment Surveil­lance Programs (July 15, 2013)


Bulk Collec­tion Under Section 215 Has Ended…What’s Next? (Faiza Patel; Just Secur­ity; Novem­ber 30, 2015)

The Legal Legacy of the NSA’s Section 215 Bulk Collec­tion Program (Michael Price; Just Secur­ity; Novem­ber 16, 2015)

What Amer­ic­ans Actu­ally Do When the Govern­ment Is Watch­ing (Brynne O’Neal; Huff­ing­ton Post; July 20, 2015)

When Will Surveil­lance Reform Stop Being Just ‘Cool’? (Faiza Patel; Al Jazeera Amer­ica; June 25, 2015)

Who Really Wins from NSA Reform? (Eliza­beth Goitein; MSNBC; June 5, 2015)

Our Privacy and Liberty Still At Risk, Even If Leahy NSA Bill Passes (Eliza­beth Goitein; The Amer­ican Prospect; August 7, 2014)

Post-9/11 Over­reach of Secret Federal Court Must End (Faiza Patel; Al Jazeera Amer­ica; July 18, 2014)

On Anniversary of Snowden’s NSA Disclos­ure, A Shock­ing Real­iz­a­tion (Eliza­beth Goitein; Chris­tian Science Monitor; June 5, 2014)

A Fail­ure to Protect Our Rights (Faiza Patel; Al Jazeera Amer­ica; March 17, 2014)

Third-Party Metadata Idea Is Fourth-Rate (Eliza­beth Goitein; Wall Street Journal; March 10, 2014)

The Real State of the Union: Surveil­lance and Privacy (Eliza­beth Goitein; Al Jazeera Amer­ica; Janu­ary 28, 2014)

Judge’s Ruling Could Jeop­ard­ize NSA Surveil­lance (Andrew Cohen; The Atlantic; Decem­ber 17, 2013)

The NSA Owes Us Answers (Rachel Levin­son-Wald­man, MSNBC, Octo­ber 27, 2013)

What They’re Not Telling Us About Tele­phone Records Collec­tions (Rachel Levin­son-Wald­man, National Law Journal, August 26, 2013)

NSA Data Collec­tion: A Legal Dance (Rachel Levin­son-Wald­man, Balkiniz­a­tion, June 7, 2013)

The Spying on Amer­ic­ans Never Ended (Eliza­beth Goitein, Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2013)


Arise TV: Mike German Discusses Surveil­lance Reforms (Febru­ary 10, 2014)

NBC: Eliza­beth Goitein on Surveil­lance Reforms (Janu­ary 17, 2014)

BronxNet: Michael Price on NSA Data Collec­tion (Janu­ary 14, 2014)

MSNBC: Eliza­beth Goitein on the NSA (Decem­ber 21, 2013)

Bloomberg TV: Eliza­beth Goitein on New NSA Guidelines (Decem­ber 18, 2013)

EVENT: Public Voices Lecture: Surveil­lance in the U.S. (Decem­ber 5, 2013)

CCTV: Goitein on NSA Spying on Foreign Lead­ers (Novem­ber 3, 2013)

Globo TV: Faiza Patel on NSA Spying (Octo­ber 31, 2013)

Huff­Post: Goitein on NSA Spying on Foreign Lead­ers (Octo­ber 30, 2013)

Al Jazeera: Rachel Levin­son-Wald­man on NSA Data (Octo­ber 20, 2013)

Huff­Post Live: Faiza Patel on Inter­net Secur­ity (Septem­ber 6, 2013)

MSNBC: Eliza­beth Goitein on Obama and Surveil­lance (August 9, 2013)

Current TV: Faiza Patel on ACLU’s Case Against NSA (June 12, 2013)

State­ments & Press Releases:

Letter from 24 Civil Liber­ties Groups to Office of the Director of National Intel­li­gence, House Judi­ciary Commit­tee (May 31, 2018)

Congress Passes NSA Reform Bill (June 2, 2015)

NSA Reform Bill Aims to End “Bulk Collec­tion” of Amer­ic­ans’ Records, But Falls Short on Other Needed Reforms (April 28, 2015)