Citing Snowden leaks, FISA court orders government to review secretive NSA surveillance rules

The United States’ secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has ordered the government to move forward with declassifying documents pertaining to its practice of collecting the phone records of millions of Americans in bulk.

Citing the vast public interest generated by leaks attributed to
former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, FISC Judge F.
Dennis Saylor said in a ruling early Friday that the government
must review the currently classified legal opinions that the US
has used for years to justify its policy of compelling American
telecommunication companies for the metadata of millions of
Americans’ phone calls on a daily basis.

Judge Saylor’s ruling gives the government until October 4 to
review opinions concerning Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the
so-called “business records provision” of the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act, and reconsider requests made by
the American Civil Liberties Union to have them declassified and
made public.

Leaked documents supplied to the media by Snowden earlier this
year revealed that the US government was receiving telephony metadata – information about calls
including the time and duration of conversations – regularly and
without a warrant or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity
through its secretive interpretation of Sec. 215.

As early as 2011, lawmakers in Washington suggested that Sec. 215
was being abused in order to spy on Americans’
communications. “When the American people find out how their
government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be
stunned and they will be angry
,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon)
said that May. Only with a leaked FISA document this past June,
however, did the world learn through the first Snowden disclosure
the degree in which the government goes about spying on its
citizens.

The unauthorized disclosure in June 2013 of a Section 215
order, and government statements in response to that disclosure,
have engendered considerable public interest and debate about
Section 215
,” Saylor wrote.

“[Further] Publication of FISC opinions relating to this
provision would contribute to an informed debate
,” Saylor
added. “Publication would also assure citizens of the
integrity of this Court’s proceedings
.”

One day earlier, US Director of National Intelligence James
Clapper said during a statement in Washington that the
conversations that have been generated by Snowden’s leaks
probably needed to happen.”

Responding to Friday’s news in an official statement, ACLU staff
attorney Alex Abdo said, “We are pleased that the surveillance
court has recognized the importance of transparency to the
ongoing public debate about the NSA’s spying
.”

For too long, the NSA’s sweeping surveillance of Americans
has been shrouded in unjustified secrecy
,” Abdo said.
Today’s ruling is an overdue rebuke of that practice. Secret
law has no place in our democracy
.”

The ACLU filed a motion asking the court to release opinions
related to Sec. 215 only days after the first Snowden leak
revealed that Verizon Business Network Services, a subsidiary of
telecom giant Verizon, gave the government telephony metadata of
its customers calls on a daily basis. ACLU legal fellow Brett Max
Kaufman wrote after paperwork was filed that, as a customer of
VBNS, the ACLU was “immediately confronted with the harmful
impact that such broad surveillance would have on our legal and
advocacy work
.” They asked the government for the publication
of FISC opinions “evaluating the meaning, scope and
constitutionality
” of Sec. 215, the process of which will
begin immediately following Judge Saylor’s ruling.

The opinions, Saylor wrote, “would be of concrete, particular
assistance to [plaintiffs] in their own activities
.”

Saylor has spared the government for now from reviewing Sec. 215
opinions that are being litigated in a separate Freedom of
Information Act lawsuit filed by the ACLU in October 2011. The
government has already released a handful of FISC opinions
related to that case and is expected to publish more in the
coming weeks. Meanwhile, the ACLU is scheduled to begin oral
arguments challenging the constitutionality of the NSA’s mass
phone records collection program in New York City on November 1.

Copyright: RT