From 2009 to 2013, the National Security Agency went to the secretive United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) 8,164 times asking for legal permission to conduct electronic or physical surveillance. As Jason Koebler points out over at Motherboard, of those thousands of requests the FISA Court denied just one, in 2009.
Koebler points to a series of documents from the Department of Justice (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) laying out the interactions between the two agencies. The most recent was released yesterday. In addition to the one flat denial, the court also asked for 122 modifications. A more limited portion were later withdrawn by the government. Koebler:
Of course, much of what happens on the FISC court is completely secret, so we’ll likely never know what the modifications were. It was only last year that we actually saw a FISC court order, when Glenn Greenwald obtained a copy of one that ordered Verizon to turn over millions’ of customers metadata.
One proposed plan to limit the NSA's access to phone metadata records would see those records kept not by the NSA, but by the phone companies. To gain access to the metadata records the NSA would need to go through the FISA Court for approval. But the fact that nearly every single request made by the NSA goes through unphased gives context to this proposal. Historically, an NSA request has only had a 0.01% chance of getting knocked down by the court, which raises the question of how different this system would actually be from the status quo.