Trusting the oversight of the nation’s most secretive agency to its most secretive court never seemed likely to work. And as it turns out, it didn’t.
That’s the impression left by the latest disclosures about the National Security Agency and the court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which is the shadowy venue in which the spy agency’s activities are supposed to acquire a patina of legitimacy.
The records were released with extensive redactions in response to lawsuits by civil-liberties groups in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks.
They show that the FISA court labored to legalize NSA activities that had already been carried out and that could hardly be squeezed into the broad espionage authority Congress had granted, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
A court opinion written in 2004 and released for the first time two weeks ago rubber-stamped the NSA’s mass collection of online “metadata” – that is, information on the senders, recipients, and timing of e-mails. Of the latest revelations about the FISA court, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jameel Jaffer told The New York Times, “This is a reminder (that) a lot of the most important and far-reaching decisions of the past decade were issued by this court, which meets in secret and hears only from the government and doesn’t publish its decisions.”
The ACLU is now suing to stop the NSA’s mass collection of phone records. Arguments in that case were heard in U.S. District Court in New York – and it passes for progress that we know that much.