Challenging Illegal NSA Spying
August 20, 2007, ACLU
In Unprecedented Order, FISA Court Requires Bush Administration to Respond to ACLU’s Request That Secret Court Orders Be Released to the Public.
WASHINGTON – In an unprecedented order, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) has required the U.S. government to respond to a request it received last week by the American Civil Liberties Union for orders and legal papers discussing the scope of the government’s authority to engage in the secret wiretapping of Americans. According to the FISC’s order, the ACLU’s request “warrants further briefing,” and the government must respond to it by August 31. The court has said that any reply by the ACLU must be filed by September 14.
“Disclosure of these court orders and legal papers is essential to the ongoing debate about government surveillance,” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. “We desperately need greater transparency and public scrutiny.We’re extremely encouraged by today’s development because it means that, at long last, the government will be required to defend its contention that the orders should not be released.”
The ACLU filed the request with the FISC following Congress’ recent passage of the so-called “Protect America Act,” a law that vastly expands the Bush administration’s authority to conduct warrantless wiretapping of Americans’ international phone calls and e-mails. In their aggressive push to justify passing this ill-advised legislation, the administration and members of Congress made repeated and veiled references to orders issued by the FISC earlier this year. The legislation is set to expire in six months unless it is renewed.
“These court orders relate to the circumstances in which the government should be permitted to use its profoundly intrusive surveillance powers to intercept the communications of U.S. citizens and residents,” said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “The debate about this issue should not take place in a vacuum.It’s imperative that the public have access to basic information about what the administration has proposed and what the intelligence court has authorized.”
FISC orders have played a critical role in the evolution of the government’s surveillance activities over the past six years. After September 11, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to inaugurate a program of warrantless wiretapping inside the United States. In January 2007, however, just days before an appeals court was to hear the government’s appeal from a judicial ruling that had found the NSA program to be illegal in a case brought by the ACLU, Attorney General Gonzales announced that the NSA program would be discontinued. Gonzales explained that the change was made possible by FISC orders issued on January 10, 2007, which he characterized as “complex” and “innovative.” Those orders are among the documents requested by the ACLU.
Since January 2007, government officials have spoken publicly about the January 10 orders in congressional testimony, to the media and in legal papers – the orders remaining secret all the while. They have also indicated that the FISC issued other orders in the spring that restricted the administration’s surveillance activities. House Minority Leader John Boehner stated that the FISC had issued a ruling prohibiting intelligence agents from intercepting foreign-to-foreign calls passing through the United States. To a large extent, it was the perception that the FISC had issued an order limiting the administration’s surveillance authority that led Congress to pass the new legislation expanding the government’s surveillance powers. Yet the order itself, like the January 2007 order, has remained secret.
The ACLU’s request to the FISC acknowledges that the FISC’s docket includes a significant amount of material that is properly classified. The ACLU argues, however, that the release of court orders and opinions would not raise any security concern to the extent that these records address purely legal issues about the scope of the government’s wiretap authority, and points out that the FISC has released such orders and opinions before. The ACLU is seeking release of all information in those judicial orders and legal papers the court determines, after independent review, to be unclassified or improperly classified.
A copy of the FISA court order, the ACLU’s motion to the FISC, as well as information about the ACLU’s lawsuit against the NSA and other related materials are available online at: www.aclu.org/spying.
In addition to Jaffer, lawyers on the case are Steven R. Shapiro, Melissa Goodman, and Alexa Kolbi-Molinas of the ACLU and Art Spitzer of the ACLU of the National Capital Area.