what’s in a name: the foreign intelligence surveillance act

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act sounds like something out of Mission: Impossible. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to plant a tiny camera in the lapel pin of a scowling dictator’s personal chef.

Good guess, but no.

FISA isn’t about sneaking into a heavily guarded enemy base — it’s a law that lets the U.S. government spy on Americans any time they’re talking to people in other countries.

There are two interesting things going on with this name. The first one is the word “foreign.” We’ll talk more about that some other day, but the gist is that it divides us from other people. Foreigners talk funny and eat weird things and who knows, maybe they want to kill you, so we’d better keep an eye on them.

The second thing to notice is that the law does the opposite of what it sounds like it does, which is usually a clue that the people who named it don’t want you to think too hard about what they’re really doing. “We’re going to spy on scary foreigners” goes over a lot better with the voting public than “We’re going to spy on you.”