The Laws You Can’t See –

In the month since a national security contractor leaked classified documents revealing a vast sweep of Americans’ phone records by the federal government, people across the country have disagreed about the extent to which our expectation of personal privacy must yield to the demands of national security.
Under normal circumstances, this could be a healthy, informed debate on a matter of overwhelming importance — the debate President Obama said he welcomed in the days after the revelations of the surveillance programs.
But this is a debate in which almost none of us know what we’re talking about.
As Eric Lichtblau reported in The Times on Sunday, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has for years been developing what is effectively a secret and unchallenged body of law on core Fourth Amendment issues, producing lengthy classified rulings based on the arguments of the federal government — the only party allowed in the courtroom. In recent years, the court, originally established by Congress to approve wiretap orders, has extended its reach to consider requests related to nuclear proliferation, espionage and cyberattacks. Its rulings, some of which approach 100 pages, have established the court as a final arbiter in these matters.
But the court is as opaque as it is powerful. Every attempt to understand the court’s rulings devolves into a fog of hypothesis and speculation.
The few public officials with knowledge of the surveillance court’s work either censor themselves as required by law, as Senator Ron Wyden has done in his valiant efforts to draw attention to the full scope of these programs, or they offer murky, even misleading statements, as the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., did before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March.
As outrageous as the blanket secrecy of the surveillance court is, we are equally troubled by the complete absence of any adversarial process, the heart of our legal system. The government in 2012 made 1,789 requests to conduct electronic surveillance; the court approved 1,788 (the government withdrew the other). It is possible that not a single one of these 1,788 requests violated established law, but the public will never know because no one was allowed to make a counterargument.
When judicial secrecy is coupled with a one-sided presentation of the issues, the result is a court whose reach is expanding far beyond its original mandate and without any substantive check. This is a perversion of the American justice system, and it is not necessary.
Even before the latest revelations of government snooping, some members of Congress were trying to provide that check. In a letter to the court in February, Senator Dianne Feinstein and three others asked that any rulings with a “significant interpretation of the law” be declassified. In response, the court’s presiding judge, Reggie Walton, wrote that the court could provide only summaries of its rulings, because the full opinions contained classified information. But he balked at releasing summaries, which he feared would create “misunderstanding or confusion.” It is difficult to imagine how releasing information would make the confusion worse.
Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, recently reintroduced a bill that would require declassification. It was defeated in December. In light of the national uproar over the most recent revelations, the leadership in Congress should push to pass it and begin to shine some light on this dark corner of the judicial system.
We don’t know what we’ll find. The surveillance court may be strictly adhering to the limits of the Fourth Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Or not. And that’s the problem: This court has morphed into an odd hybrid that seems to exist outside the justice system, even as its power grows in ways that we can’t see.
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