Congress in 1978 established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as a special court and authorized the Chief Justice of the United States to designate seven federal district court judges, drawn from seven judicial circuits, to review applications for warrants related to national security investigations. Judges serve for staggered, non-renewable terms of no more than seven years. Pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (92 Stat. 1783), the court entertains applications submitted by the U.S. government for approval of electronic surveillance, physical search, and other investigative actions for foreign intelligence purposes. The legislation was a response to a report of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the "Church Committee"), which detailed allegations of executive branch abuses of its authority to conduct domestic electronic surveillance in the interest of national security. Congress also was responding to the Supreme Court's suggestion in a 1972 case (U.S. v. U.S. District Court, also known as the "Keith case" (407 U.S. 297)) that under the Fourth Amendment a judicial warrant might be required to conduct national security related investigations.
The judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court travel to Washington, D.C., to hear warrant applications on a rotating basis. Most of the court's work is conducted ex parte as required by statute and due to the need to protect classified national security information. The act of 1978 also established a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, presided over by three district or appeals court judges designated by the Chief Justice, to review, at the government's request, the decisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The review court had no occasion to meet until 2002. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 (115 Stat. 272) expanded the time periods for which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can authorize surveillance and increased the number of judges serving the court from seven to eleven. The eleven judges must be drawn from at least seven judicial circuits, and no fewer than three are to reside within twenty miles of the District of Columbia.
Pursuant to the USA Freedom Act of 2015 (129 Stat. 268), beginning in 2015, the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts started publishing an annual report on the activities of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Those reports are published on the official U.S. Courts website.