FBI tracks secret 'wiretaps' with multilevel security

The FBI has launched an application that monitors the preparation of requests for secret wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by using several levels of classification, ranked by the security level of the user.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 created the FIS Court (FISC). The court, which meets in secret, is formed of 12 judges who serve in rotating three-judge panels, sit continuously and review requests for electronic surveillance three days a week, according to various public reports and records.

An FBI special agent recently recounted the state of affairs regarding executive branch requests to the FISC for national-security wiretaps when FBI director Robert Mueller took office in August 2001.

“The director asked how many [FISA requests] were pending,” the FBI official said. “The answer was, ‘The FBI didn’t know.’ He asked, ‘How long does it take to approve one?’ We didn’t know. He asked, ‘What’s the holdup [main delaying factor]?’ We didn’t know.”

Information contained in the surveillance requests largely is classified at the secret or top-secret levels, the official said. Surveillance requests often come from the foreign intelligence groups in each of the bureau’s 56 field offices. “All of this information is coming in at different classification levels,” the official said.

“Because of the sensitivity of these things, they are some of the most reviewed documents in the government,” the official added.

The Justice Department prepares the final version of each surveillance request after it has been repeatedly vetted. Only a handful of federal officials are authorized to provide the final approval. They include the FBI director, the deputy director of national intelligence, the secretary of state and the national security adviser.

“These are not the kind of people where you just come into their office with a stack of documents and say, ‘Here’s a stack of documents for you to sign,’ ” the official said.

When Mueller joined the FBI, officials transmitted FISA requests among agencies by sneakernet. Various networks played a part in the process, including FBI, Justice Department and Pentagon systems.

Regarding Justice’s system, the FBI official said, “To give you an idea of their idea of connectivity, it was called Oasis [and wasn’t connected to anything].”

To manage the information coming into the system at various levels of classification, the bureau turned to High Performance Technologies Inc. of Reston, Va.

“We have a system that takes information from the secret level and puts it up to top secret,” the FBI official said.

The application, known as the FISA System, allows users to access information it holds based on the security clearances they hold, the official said. “The technicians don’t need to see the secret and top-secret levels,” he said.

Automating the system speeded the approval process from 120 days to 60 days, the official said. It also provides an audit trail of system activity, generates reminders about pending requests and has room to grow, the official said.

Federal officials have the right to launch a wiretap or electronic surveillance and seek retroactive court approval in urgent cases, according to various reports.

The Bush administration’s decision to launch some surveillance operations without any court approval at all led to the resignation of one FISC judge and a flap over whether the rogue White House wiretaps would jeopardize other cases.

FISC has its hand full. From a workload of 932 FISA orders in 2001, the annual caseload reached 2,005 requests in 2005, the official said.

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