The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978: Congressional Efforts to Balance the Competing Interests of Personal Privacy and National Security

Barbara Ann Stolz, US General Accounting Office

Transnational crimes such as drug trafficking, terrorism, and trading in weapons of mass destruction, have blurred the once distinct lines of investigation and reponsibility for gathering intelligence and evidence for criminal prosecution. While intelligence and criminal investigations raise concerns regarding the protection of the constitutionally guaranteed right to personal privacy, intelligence investigations also raise a competing concern for preservation of the national security. Since 1978, intelligence gathering, through electronic surveillance and, as later amended, physical searches has been governed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (P.L. 95-511 and 103-359). This legistlation provides for processes and procedures for conducting intelligence investigations, usually directed against foreign citizens or foreign governments, that are less restrictive than those governing the gathering of criminal evidence. It also provides a special FIS Court to process FISA applications. The question remains, however, was this legislation enacted in response to pressure from interest groups concerned with the violation of rights in the 1970s, as a symbolic act to reassure the public that the rights of American citizens were protected from excesses of federal law enforcement, or was there another explanation? This paper seeks to explain why campuses enacted these special procedures of intelligence of investigation.

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Updated 05/20/2006