Court Approves NSA Interception of American Communications

Courts gave the NSA broad powers to intercept overseas communications of Americans . . . 30 years ago.

NSA headquarter

From “The Silent Power of the NSA” (NYT):

A Federal Court of Appeals recently ruled that the largest and most secretive intelligence agency of the United States, the National Security Agency, may lawfully intercept the overseas communications of Americans even if it has no reason to believe they are engaged in illegal activities. The ruling, which also allows summaries of these conversations to be sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, significantly broadens the already generous authority of the N.S.A. to keep track of American citizens.

The decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit involves the Government surveillance of Abdeen Jabara, a Michigan-born lawyer who for many years has represented Arab-American citizens and alien residents, and reverses a 1979 ruling that the N.S.A.’s acquisition of Jabara’s overseas messages violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free of ”unreasonable searches and seizures.” Even while refusing the plaintiff’s request for reconsideration, the Court curiously acknowledged the far-reaching nature of the case, recognizing that the N.S.A.’s interception of overseas telecommunications and their dissemination to ”other Federal agencies has great potential for abuse.” The Court, however, held that the problem was ”a policy matter that lies in the domain of the executive or legislative branch of our Government.”


Over the years, this virtually unknown Federal agency has repeatedly sought to enlarge its power without consulting the civilian officials who theoretically direct the Government, while it also has sought to influence the operation and development of all civilian communications networks. Indeed, under Vice Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, N.S.A. director from 1977 to 1981, the agency received an enlarged Presidential mandate to involve itself in communications issues, and successfully persuaded private corporations and institutions to cooperate with it.

What’s most interesting about the report is its date: March 27, 1983.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Wow, that is a fascinating find.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    So basically the Court is telling everyone, and Congress, that if they want a different outcome then change the law.

    If we weren’t so ‘effing dysfunctional, we’d hold a Senate Hearing on this issue and start to deal with privacy laws in the digital age. By the way, I don’t see this as inherently a partisan issue. We the people need to have real discussion on privacy issues, it’s complex.

  3. DC Loser says:

    Predates 1984.

  4. HarvardLaw92 says:

    This one I will take issue with. Wiretapping a conversation to which a US person is party clearly requires a warrant substantiated by probable cause, regardless of who else happens to be on the other end of the line or where those other party(s) may be located. Substantial overreach.

  5. William Wilgus says:

    The Court realized that it couldn’t stop them for doing it anyway and thaqt they might as well remain on the NSA’s ‘good’ side.

  6. William Wilgus says:

    @al-Ameda: I see this not as a privacy issue—though it certainly is about privacy—but as an issue of power. At least at the present time, Neither the Executive, the Legislative, or the Judicial branches of government seem able to control it.

  7. Andy says:

    Here’s one for the lawyers:

    What happens when a foreign government, on its own soil, wiretaps a US citizen and then sends that wiretap information to US Law enforcement?

  8. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Nothing. It’s legal. Probably inadmissible in a criminal proceeding, but not illegal to obtain via that path in and of itself.