The National Security Agency (NSA) is once again the target of criticism following revelations that it harvests online address books from websites, but the presiding judge of the secret court overseeing the agency's surveillance denies that the agency has a rubber stamp for online surveillance.
Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with intelligence officials published Monday in the Washington Post report that the agency collects hundreds of millions of address books worldwide, including some Americans, but these activities are not regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) because the data is collected in foreign countries.
Numerous bills in Congress seek to reform the FISA court, including one that will soon be introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. That bill would remove the ability of the NSA to collect data on Americans in this way by spying on foreign targets, and end the agency's bulk collection of data.
But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is against limiting the ability of the NSA to collect data for intelligence purposes, so on Tuesday she released a letter from Reggie Walton, presiding judge of the FISA court, to defend the existing oversight of the agency surveillance. Walton's declassified letter originally sent to Leahy on Oct. 11 said the court alters numerous government requests for data collection or even refuses some of them, even though that may not be reflected in the final statistics that the court sends to Congress.
"During the three-month period between July 1 through September 30, we have observed that 24.4 percent of matters submitted ultimately involved substantive changes to the information provided by the government or to the authorities granted as a result of court inquiry or action," Walton said in his letter.
This statement from Walton illustrated that the FISA court is doing its job to protect American's privacy and that it "does not 'rubber stamp' requests for surveillance of terrorism suspects," Feinstein argued in a statement.
"The FISA court is tasked with conducting careful legal analysis of all administration requests, and these data reinforce my belief that the FISA Court is taking that mandate seriously," Feinstein said.
Leahy reasserted his view that "the FISA Court is not a rubber stamp for government surveillance requests," but he added that stronger oversight of NSA surveillance is needed.
"It is clear that FISA court judges are now tackling significant constitutional issues and have assumed a regulatory role not envisioned when the court was created," Leahy said in a statement. "We must consider reforms to the court's procedures as well as limitations on the government's surveillance authorities, and I will soon introduce bipartisan legislation that addresses these very issues."