Fixing FISA

Congress is beginning to have a debate about surveillance, oversight and secrecy – the one good thing to come out of  Edward Snowden’s continuing adventure.  Of course, it is hard to debate when you can’t talk about a lot of things in public or even to your fellow members, so I was very interesting in reading Judge James G. Carr’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.  His suggestion is one that Congress and the Obama Administration should be able to debate and legislate without revealing anything that needs to be kept secret.  Judge Carr is identified as a senior federal judge for the Northern District of Ohio,[who] served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 2002 to 2008.

CONGRESS created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 1978 as a check on executive authority. Recent disclosures about vast data-gathering by the government have raised concerns about the legitimacy of the court’s actions. Congress can take a simple step to restore confidence in the court’s impartiality and integrity: authorizing its judges to appoint lawyers to serve the public interest when novel legal issues come before it.

The court is designed to protect individual liberties as the government protects us from foreign dangers. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the Nixon administration had violated the Fourth Amendment by conducting warrantless surveillance on a radical domestic group, the White Panthers, who were suspected of bombing a C.I.A. recruiting office in Ann Arbor, Mich. In 1975 and 1976, the Church Committee, a Senate panel, produced a series of reports about foreign and domestic intelligence operations, including surveillance by the F.B.I. of suspected communists, radicals and other activists — including, notoriously, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Foreign Intelligence Service Act set up the FISA Court in response. To obtain authority to intercept the phone and electronic communications of American citizens and permanent residents, the government must only show probable cause that the target has a connection to a foreign government or entity or a foreign terrorist group. It does not have to show, as with an ordinary search warrant, probable cause that the target is suspected of a crime.

The problem is that the court only hears from one side.  I wrote recently that the real danger to our civil liberties is the FISA Court and I hoped that people will come up with ways to try to fix it.  Judge Carr has one suggestion at which Congress should take a serious look.

Critics note that the court has approved almost all of the government’s surveillance requests. Some say the court is virtually creating a secret new body of law governing privacy, secrecy and surveillance. Others have called for declassified summaries of all of the court’s secret rulings.

James Robertson, a retired federal judge who served with me on the FISA court, recently called for greater transparency of the court’s proceedings. He has proposed the naming of an advocate, with high-level security clearance, to argue against the government’s filings. He suggested that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which oversees surveillance activities, could also provide a check. I would go even further.

In an ordinary criminal case, the adversarial process assures legal representation of the defendant. Clearly, in top-secret cases involving potential surveillance targets, a lawyer cannot, in the conventional sense, represent the target.

Congress could, however, authorize the FISA judges to appoint, from time to time, independent lawyers with security clearances to serve “pro bono publico” — for the public’s good — to challenge the government when an application for a FISA order raises new legal issues.

Having lawyers challenge novel legal assertions in these secret proceedings would result in better judicial outcomes. Even if the government got its way all or most of the time, the court would have more fully developed its reasons for letting it do so. Of equal importance, the appointed lawyer could appeal a decision in the government’s favor to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review — and then to the Supreme Court. No opportunity for such review exists today, because only the government can appeal a FISA court ruling.

A combination of a people’s advocate and public release of decision summaries would remove some of the mystery and secrecy.

One obvious objection: judges considering whether to issue an ordinary search warrant hear only from the government. Why should this not be the same when the government goes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?

My answer: the court is unique among judicial institutions in balancing the right to privacy against the president’s duty to protect the public, and it encounters issues of statutory and constitutional interpretation that no other court does or can.

For an ordinary search warrant, the judge has a large and well-developed body of precedent. When a warrant has been issued and executed, the subject knows immediately. If indicted, he can challenge the warrant. He can also move to have property returned or sue for damages. These protections are not afforded to FISA surveillance targets. Even where a target is indicted, laws like the Classified Information Procedures Act almost always preclude the target from learning about the order or challenging the evidence. This situation puts basic constitutional protections at risk and creates doubts about the legitimacy of the court’s work and the independence and integrity of its judges. To avert these dangers, Congress should amend FISA to give the court’s judges the discretion to appoint lawyers to serve not just the interests of the target and the public — but those of the court as well.

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993 (Photo credit: David Holt London)

We are already deep in uncharted waters and we need to take steps to try to protect ourselves.  It serves no purpose if we lose our civil liberties while protecting them.  I don’t have a great deal of hope that Congress can actually get itself together enough to act, but there has been some glimmer of bipartisanship about this issue.  Let us hope someone writes Judge Carr’s ideas into a bill so it can be introduced.

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