Leahy Weighs Possible Changes To FISA Court as Part of NSA Debate

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By Alexei Alexis  

Sept. 24 --Congress should look at overhauling the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) as part of efforts to rein in controversial National Security Agency programs that have prompted a major privacy debate in recent months, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Sept. 24.

In a speech delivered at the Georgetown University Law Center, Leahy expressed concerns about the court's proceedings and called for consideration of structural changes.

FISC judges are now “rendering very complex constitutional decisions about massive surveillance programs that have major implications for Americans' privacy,” Leahy said. “They're conducting oversight of highly technical programs. And they're doing this all in secret, and the court doesn't have the advantage of there being an adversarial process.”

Legislation Pending

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a Judiciary Committee member, has introduced a bill to overhaul FISC proceedings. Similar legislation has been proposed in the House by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

The FISC, which was established under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), issues orders compelling U.S. businesses to cooperate with government spying initiatives, using a legal process that is largely closed to the public.

The court has received increased attention in the wake of exposure of controversial NSA surveillance programs in June through press reports. One program involves the bulk collection of U.S. phone customer records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Another initiative, known as PRISM, concerns the monitoring of Internet communications under Section 702 of FISA, a provision that was added in 2008.

The Judiciary Committee is in the midst of a review of the programs. A classified briefing for committee members has been scheduled for Sept. 25 and an open hearing has been planned for the week of Sept. 30, Leahy said.

In a related development, Leahy and other members of panel urged the intelligence community's inspector general Sept. 23 to conduct a full review of the government's use and implementation of Section 215 and Section 702 over the last three years.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexei Alexis in Washington at aalexis @bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com