US Must Fix Secret Fisa Courts, Says Top Judge Who Granted Surveillance Orders
A former federal judge who granted government surveillance requests has broken ranks to criticise the system of secret courts as unfit for purpose in the wake of recent revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
James Robertson, who retired from the District of Columbia circuit in 2010, was one of a select group of judges who presided over the so-called Fisa courts, set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which are intended to provide legal oversight and protect against unnecessary privacy intrusions.
But he says he was shocked to hear of recent changes to allow more sweeping authorisations of programmes such as the gathering of US phone records, and called for a reform of the system to allow counter-arguments to be heard.
While President Obama and his intelligence advisers have spoken of the surveillance programs leaked by Mr. Snowden mainly in terms of combating terrorism, the court has also interpreted the law in ways that extend into other national security concerns. In one recent case, for instance, intelligence officials were able to get access to an e-mail attachment sent within the United States because they said they were worried that the e-mail contained a schematic drawing or a diagram possibly connected to Iran’s nuclear program.
In the past, that probably would have required a court warrant because the suspicious e-mail involved American communications. In this case, however, a little-noticed provision in a 2008 law, expanding the definition of “foreign intelligence” to include “weapons of mass destruction,” was used to justify access to the message.
Later on Tuesday afternoon, the workshop also heard from a number of other experts who called for the decisions of the Fisa courts to be made public.
James Baker, a Department of Justice lawyer who has represented the government in surveillance requests before the Fisa court, said that an unclassified summary of its findings could be produced fairly easily .
The Obama administration, in a new court filing, urged the nation’s surveillance court to throw out a request by civil liberties groups to disclose its secret rulings about the scope and legality of the Patriot Act.
In the filing, embedded below, the Obama Administration Justice Department quotes with approval the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s own view of its power, expressed in 2007, that “[t]he FISC is a unique court … [o]ther courts operate primarily in public, with secrecy the exception; the FISC operates primarily in secret, with public access the exception.”
The filing, which comes in response to a June lawsuit from the ACLU, coincides with a critical profile by the New York Times that claims the FISA court has “become almost a parallel Supreme Court” with its own “secret body of law” that bolsters the powers of the NSA.