The nation’s super-secret intelligence court denied just nine of the more than 1,700 requests it received last year for government surveillance warrants in terrorism and espionage cases, according to a report released Thursday that offers a rare glimpse into its work.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court received 1,752 applications for wiretaps and other surveillance in 2016. It granted 1,378 of those requests; 26 others were partially denied, and 339 were modified, according to the report, the first year-long accounting of the court’s work.
The 2015 report only represents the last six months of that year, but notes the court denied five applications. In both years, the denied applications were mostly for electronic surveillance, such as email, phone and data intercepts, and for physical searches of things like homes, cars, luggage and offices.
The court approves highly secretive warrants in the most sensitive of FBI investigations, and the report does not offer any insight into its classified process or any of the applications it received. But it offers a small peek into its work, which has taken on particular importance with ongoing investigations into whether President Donald Trump’s campaign had ties to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
The Washington Post was first to report that the FBI obtained a secret order from the court last summer to monitor the communications of Carter Page, an adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, because the government had reason to believe Page was acting as a Russian agent.
Conversations between Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. were also collected through a warrant issued by the surveillance court. The ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, was being monitored through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 1978 law that created the court.
It differs from a regular criminal warrant because it does not require the government to provide probable cause that a crime has occurred. Instead, under FISA, the government must simply provide evidence that the target of an investigation is an agent of a foreign power.
The Justice Department applies for the warrants in a one-sided process before the court’s judges. Permission is granted if a judge agrees there’s probable cause that the target is an agent of a foreign power.
The standard is a high bar to meet, and applications are hardly ever denied. The Stanford Law Review noted that between 1979 and 2012, the court had an approval rate of more than 99 percent.