The secret court that oversees the National Security Agency surveillance programs ruled on Friday that court opinions regarding the agency’s use of the Patriot Act must be released. The ruling is potentially a major victory for the ACLU, which had sued for the release of the opinions.
“The surveillance court has recognized the importance of transparency to the ongoing public debate about the NSA’s spying,” said ACLU attorney Alex Abdo to MSNBC.com in response to the ruling, hailing it as a “rebuke” of the government’s increasing reliance on “secret law.”
According to recent leaks about the NSA’s telephone and internet surveillance, the Obama administration has mostly found an ally in the court as it sought to expand its surveillance powers under the Patriot Act. (The NSA expanded review of millions of phone lines under a business record section of the law, Section 215.)
In Friday’s ruling, Judge Dennis Saylor ordered “the government to conduct a declassification review” of those unreleased opinions regarding Patriot Act powers. Once the opinions are scrubbed for any potentially damaging national security information, Judge Saylor wrote they would be released because “the public interest might be served by their publication.”
He also cited interest from members of Congress who backed the ACLU’s request, noting that the opinions “would contribute to an informed debate” and assist members in “discharging their legislative responsibilities.” (The House also recently held a vote that came a few votes shy of defunding part of the NSA, in response to its expanded surveillance program.)
The ruling is a victory for transparency advocates, too, and it was not widely expected from the typically secretive court. In 2007, the court rejected a similar ACLU request for any declassified opinions regarding warrantless-spying by the Bush administration.
One difference this time, however, is that the unauthorized leaks of selected surveillance opinions may have altered the court’s thinking. In a broad allusion to that factor, Judge Saylor wrote that publishing declassified opinions would “assure citizens of the integrity of this Court’s proceedings.” With more opinions on the way, citizens will have more information to assess the court’s integrity themselves.