Timeline: U.S. Spying and Surveillance

Updated July 22, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Key happenings in the history of domestic and international surveillance

The need to protect citizens' rights against “unreasonable searches and seizures“ is as old as our country; safeguards were first codified in the Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights. Explore the timeline below to see how the delicate balance between rights of our citizens and national security has evolved.

by Catherine McNiff
1791 1967 1986 1995 2005 2009 Present
Implementation of the Bill of Rights. The Fourth Amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Olmstead v. United States. Supreme Court decides that evidence from wiretaps placed by federal officials without judicial approval is permissible and that allowing the wiretaps did not violate the suspected bootlegger's Fourth Amendment rights as the case involved phone conversations and not physical artifacts, nor did the federal agents trespass on the accused's property. This decision is overturned in 1967's Katz v. United States.
The Federal Communications Act is first law to formally address wiretapping and establishes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Under the Act, wiretapping is not illegal, but information gathered may not be disclosed.

The Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) begins project SHAMROCK, an intelligence-gathering scheme that collects-without warrants--the international telegrams coming through ITT World International, RCA Global, and Western Union to screen for espionage and Soviet spying. The program runs for 30 years.

President Truman establishes the National Security Agency (NSA), which absorbs the AFSA, to protect the nation. Part of its current mission: “to defeat terrorists and their organizations at home and abroad, consistent with U.S. laws and the protection of privacy and civil liberties.“
Katz v. United States. The Supreme Court overturns the precedent set by Olmstead v. United States, determining that the Fourth Amendment does protect non-tangible possessions such as phone calls and electronic transmissions as well as the “reasonable expectation of privacy“ in places like home, office, hotel room, phone booth. Examination of such places and things now require a warrant.

Congress passes the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, the first federal law to restrict wiretapping. However, the law makes exception for the president's overriding authority to approve wiretaps if in the service of protecting the United States
The Watergate Scandal begins on June 17, 1972, when five employees of President Richard Nixon's reelection campaign are caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. A Senate investigation and an inquiry by a special prosecutor follow.

The House Judiciary Committee issues three articles of impeachment on July 30, indicting President Nixon for illegal wiretapping, misuse of the CIA, perjury, bribery, obstruction of justice, and other abuses of executive power. Nixon resigns before the proceedings conclude, thereby avoiding being removed from office.

Headed by Senator Frank Church, the “Church Committee“ investigates intelligence gathering by the CIA and FBI, uncovering hundreds of instances of warrantless wiretappings and unauthorized electronic surveillance.
President Carter passes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which establishes a secret court to hear requests for warrants for “electronic surveillance to obtain foreign intelligence information."

An amendment to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) adds wireless and data communications (cell phone conversations and internet communication) to the Act. Stored data more than 180 days old, however, is still vulnerable.
First court-ordered wiretapping leads to the arrest and conviction of Julio Ardita, who used computers at Harvard to hack government sites.

In the wake of 9/11, Congress passes the Patriot Act, which makes significant changes to FISA and ECPA, including easing wiretapping restrictions (by allowing roving wiretaps, for example). Section 215 allows the sharing of “any tangible thing“ as part of a foreign intelligence or international terrorism investigation.

The National Joint Terrorist Task Force (NJTTF) is created. A multi-agency collaboration, local task forces (JTTF) consist of “small cells of highly trained, locally based, passionately committed investigators, analysts, linguists, SWAT experts, and other specialists“ created to collect intelligence and combat terrorism.
The passage of the Homeland Security Act by Congress in November creates the Department of Homeland Security, “a stand-alone, Cabinet-level department to further coordinate and unify national homeland security efforts.“

AT&T technician Mark Klein discovers a secret room at the company's facility in San Francisco. He later testifies in a federal lawsuit against the NSA by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the room was set up to accomplish “vacuum-cleaner surveillance“ of internet use of millions of unsuspecting Americans, without the consent of other carriers.

The New York Times reveals government surveillance going back to 2002, including warrantless wiretapping of phone and internet of possibly thousands of Americans.

The USA Patriot Act is renewed by President Bush.

2007 Protect America Act becomes law, amending FISA. The Department of Justice (DOJ) asserts that the legislation “restores FISA to its original focus of protecting the rights of persons in the United States, while not acting as an obstacle to gathering foreign intelligence on targets located in foreign countries. By enabling our intelligence community to close a critical intelligence gap that existed before the Act became law, the Protect America Act has already made our Nation safer."

In October, President Bush issues the first National Strategy for Information Sharing (NSI).
President Bush signs the FISA Amendments Act that allows immunity for telecom companies that cooperate with governmental information gathering and more.

The New York Times reports that the NSA is involved in “significant and systemic“ “overcollection“ of domestic communications.

President Obama signs a one-year extension of expiring portions of the Patriot Act.

In November, Secure Flight is established by the DHS to help streamline and make uniform the watch list system and is administered by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Prior to the implementation of Secure Flight, individual airlines were responsible for comparing passenger information with the government's watch lists (including the No Fly List (immediate threats) and the Selectee List (enhanced screening required)).

WikiLeaks and other news organizations begin publishing excerpts from classified military documents captured by Private First Class Bradley Manning. Private Manning is arrested in May in Iraq and faces 21 counts related to the leaking of more than half a million documents, or “cables,“ related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A subpoena is issued for Twitter to furnish account information for individuals involved in the WikiLeaks disclosure of sensitive and confidential diplomatic cables.

In May, Congress passes an extension of the Patriot Act. President Obama OKs the bill while in Europe.

The New York Times reports an unprecedented public accounting of cell phone carriers: they responded to 1.3 million demands by law enforcement for subscriber information such as text messages and caller locations. The reports paint a picture of dramatic increase in cell phone surveillance over the last five years.

Congress extends the FISA Amendments Act for another five years and also Obama signs off on the legislation.

The Guardian reports FISA court judge Roger Vinson issues a secret order to Verizon to hand over “metadata“--time, duration, numbers called (without revealing the actual call content)-to the NSA for a three-month timeframe. The Wall Street Journal reports of similar arrangements with AT&T and Sprint.

The Guardian and The Washington Post simultaneously reveal a secret program called PRISM, which was launched in 2009, that grants NSA access to the personal data of millions of people through Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Apple, and AOL. Two days later, on June 8, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence releases a three-page comment citing the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 as legal anchor. On June 21, the government files charges of espionage against Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, for the information leak.

FBI director Robert Mueller admits that the United States employs drones as part of the domestic surveillance program. Speaking before a Senate Judiciary Committee, Mueller agrees that still-uncommon drone usage sparks concerns about personal privacy and is “worthy of debate and perhaps legislation down the road."

The first ruling against the NSA's surveillance program was handed down on December 16 by Judge Richard Leon of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. He said the program is “significantly likely“ to violate the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches. "I cannot imagine a more 'indiscriminate' and 'arbitrary invasion' than this systematic and high tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval," said Leon. The government has relied on the 1979 Supreme Court case Smith v. Maryland to justify its spying program. The ruling said police can capture information about phone numbers a suspect called without a warrant because suspects cannot expect to keep such information private when using a service of a third party. Leon said that given the changes in technology, the Smith ruling no longer applies to current circumstances.

On Dec. 18, an advisory panel commissioned by President Obama released a 300-page report that recommended 46 changes to the NSA's surveillance program. The recommendations included: handing authority of metadata gleaned from surveillance to a third party, such as a telecommunications company or a private group; requiring that NSA analysts obtain a court order before accessing the data; requiring that the government obtain a court order before issuing national security letters, which force businesses to hand over private customer information; banning the government from using "back door" methods to gain access to hardware or software; and that an advocate should argue in favor of civil liberties in cases that come before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Currently, these cases are heard in private and only the government presents a case. The report also said the NSA's surveillance program has not been "essential to preventing attacks."
On Jan. 17, 2014, President Obama announced reforms to the country's surveillance program based on the panel's recommendations. He said that while he believed the activities of the NSA were legal, he acknowledged that some compromised civil liberties. The reforms he outlined include: requiring NSA analysts to get a court order to access phone data unless in cases of emergencies; an eventual end to the collection of massive amounts of metadata by the government; the NSA will stop eavesdropping on leaders of allied nations; officials can pursue a phone number linked to a terrorist association by two degrees rather than three; and Congress will appoint advocates to argue on the side of civil liberties before the FISA court. He did not implement the recommendation about national security letters.

Another report was released on Jan. 23. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency, said the NSA program is likely both illegal and unconstitutional and has not proven to be effective in fighting terrorism. The report recommended the collection of the meta data be shut down.
Ties between the U.S. and Germany deteriorated in July amid reports that the U.S. hired a clerk at Germany's intelligence agency to steal hundreds of documents. Days later, German officials announced they believe they had uncovered a second spy working for the U.S. In response, Germany expelled the CIA station chief from Berlin.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled in May that Congress never authorized the bulk collection of the phone records of U.S. citizens when it passed the U.S.A. Patriot Act, and therefore the National Security Agency's program that does so is illegal. The panel allowed the program to continue, but called on Congress to amend the law. In the court's opinion, Judge Gerard Lynch wrote "knowledge of the program was intentionally kept to a minimum, both within Congress and among the public." The program was secret until 2013, when it was disclosed by Edward Snowden.
The Senate votes, 67 to 32, to pass the USA Freedom Act, on June 2. The House had previously approved the bill, and President Obama signs it into law. The act ends the NSA's bulk collection of phone records of millions of Americans. That responsibility shifts to the phone companies, who can turn the data over to the government only when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issues a warrant to search the phone records of individuals. The law also reinstates three provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which expired on June 1: roving wiretaps of terror suspects who change devices, surveillance of "lone wolf" suspects who are not affiliated with a terrorist organization, and the seeking of court orders to search business records.

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