Rulings on NSA Spying Face Declassification
(CN) - The U.S. government must consider publicly releasing classified opinions regarding the National Security Agency's domestic spying program, a judge ruled.
Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV, one of the 11 federal judges who sits on the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISC, issued the opinion Friday in response to the complaint under the Freedom of Information Act filed two years earlier by American Civil Liberties Union. That action is pending in the Southern District of New York, but the ACLU moved in June for the production of certain records.
A week earlier the Guardian revealed the existence of the once secret court by publishing an order leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the nation's secret collection of the phone records of all Americans.
Ensuing outrage and lawsuits have prompted the court to release opinions where judges have called the surveillance a "flagrant violation" of policy and likely unconstitutional.
Judge Saylor noted Friday in another opinion made public that the "publication of FISC opinions relating to this provision would contribute to an informed debate."
He gave the federal government until Oct. 4 to identify FISC opinions as they relate to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which grants the government power to collect records as they relate to terrorism or foreign intelligence investigations.
The order covers all opinions except those covered by the ACLU's 2011 FOIA lawsuit to limit big-footing the Southern District of New York's review of the case.
In a separate lawsuit filed this past June also in Manhattan, the ACLU challenged the constitutionality of the NSA's phone data collection program.
Oral arguments in that lawsuit begin Nov. 1.
The government has agreed to release additional documents by Oct. 10 and Oct. 31.
Alex Abdo, an attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, praised Saylor's ruling, calling it an "overdue rebuke" of the government's spying actions.
"We are pleased that the surveillance court has recognized the importance of transparency to the ongoing public debate about the NSA's spying," Abdo said in a statement. "For too long, the NSA's sweeping surveillance of Americans has been shrouded in unjustified secrecy."
Snowden - who was granted asylum by Russia - was recently nominated by leftist groups of the European Parliament to receive the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought.
Before his leaks, the federal government insisted that discussion of its spying program or any court orders relating to them were a threat to national security.
The Obama administration has since shifted focus in favor of greater transparency; the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, even created a new Web page, to make documents public.
Saylor said the newly released opinions have "engendered considerable public interest and debate."