The controversial spying programs that Edward Snowden has revealed can trace their existence to the FISA court's redefinition of one word: "relevant." The Patriot Act allows the FBI to demand records as long as they are believed to be "relevant to an authorized investigation." But the court in the mid-2000s expanded the definition of "relevant" beyond its usual, narrow application in criminal cases to allow the government to collect virtually anything and assemble a database on millions of people, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Essentially, "relevant" now means "everything," a former Justice Department lawyer says. "A grand-jury subpoena for such a broad class of records," he says, "would be laughed out of court." But the FISA court's rulings are made in secret and are almost impossible to challenge. The New York Times yesterday said the court had become "almost a parallel Supreme Court," regularly ruling on broad constitutional questions. It has, for example, carved out a terrorism exception to the Fourth Amendment's protections against search and seizures.