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Hidden Hands

Hidden Hands: U.S. Spy Court Judges

The proceedings of the federal court that rules on the government’s requests to eavesdrop on foreign terrorists take place in total secrecy in a windowless room in Washington. Established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the court hears one side of the case only—the government’s. The judges almost never turn down the requests, prompting criticism that it’s little more than a rubber stamp for the administration. That’s untrue, says Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy. “These judges are not hacks. I think they do a serious job with the tools that they are given,” he says. “It’s just that the framework is peculiar and problematic.”

That became clear on Aug. 21, when the Obama administration disclosed the court had reprimanded the National Security Agency for misleading the judges. On three occasions the NSA had misrepresented the scope of its espionage, the court said, and violated the Constitution by collecting e-mails of Americans who weren’t suspected of terrorism. It’s hard to evaluate whether the judges have real authority to keep spy agencies in check. Lawmakers must ultimately decide whether the court has enough power, Aftergood says. “It’s an occasion for Congress to ask itself, ‘Is this what we had in mind?’”

The life of a FISA court judge:

1. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts picks the 11 judges from federal district courts around the country.

2. All judges don’t rule on every case. Only one is on duty at a time.

3. They rotate to Washington every 11 weeks for a one-week shift, serving a single seven-year term.

Don’t like the court’s ruling?

1. If a FISA judge makes a decision that a spy agency—or a corporation ordered to turn over data to the government—doesn’t agree with, they can file an appeal with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review.

2. The three-judge panel hasn’t had much work. There are only two known cases when it’s been called on to issue a ruling. In both, the review court sided with the government and allowed the spying to proceed.

Meet the Judges:

Reggie Walton

Presiding Judge

Washington, D.C. Federal judge since 2001

FISA term ends 2014

Presided over both of Roger Clemens’s perjury trials

James Zagel

Illinois, Northern District

Federal judge since 1987

FISA term ends 2015

Former director of the Illinois State Police who penned a 2002 crime novel, Money to Burn, about a $10 million heist at Chicago’s Federal Reserve Bank

Mary McLaughlin

Pennsylvania, Eastern District

Federal judge since 2000

FISA term ends 2015

Thomas Hogan


Federal judge since 1982

FISA term ends 2016

Susan Webber Wright

Arkansas, Eastern District

Federal judge since 1990

FISA term ends 2016

Presided over the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against President Clinton, whom she later held in contempt of court for declaring, in a sworn deposition, that he hadn’t had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky

Martin Feldman

Louisiana, Eastern District

Federal judge since 1983

FISA term ends 2017

Dennis Saylor IV


Federal judge since 2004

FISA term ends 2018

Raymond Dearie

New York, Eastern District

Federal judge since 1986

FISA term ends 2019

Overseeing the U.S. government’s case against Najibullah Zazi, a Colorado man who pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a plot to attack the New York subway system

Claire Eagan

Oklahoma, Northern District

Federal judge since 2001

FISA term ends 2019

Rosemary Collyer


Federal judge since 2002

FISA term ends 2020

Michael Mosman


Federal judge since 2003

FISA term ends 2020

Hinman is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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