U.S. defends secrecy of unique surveillance court

WASHINGTON Fri Jul 5, 2013 6:11pm EDT

A keypad is seen on a public phone in a 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

A keypad is seen on a public phone in a 2005 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Tim Wimborne

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Friday urged a secret U.S. court that oversees surveillance programs to reject a request by a civil liberties group to see court opinions used to underpin a massive phone records database.

Justice Department lawyers said in papers filed in the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that the court's opinions are a unique exception to the wide access the public typically has to court records in the United States.

If the public had a right to any opinion from the surveillance court, the possible harms would be "real and significant, and, quite frankly, beyond debate," the lawyers wrote, citing earlier rulings from the court.

The American Civil Liberties Union had asked the court last month to release some of its opinions after Britain's Guardian newspaper revealed a massive U.S. government database of daily telephone call data, prompting a worldwide debate about the program's legality.

The Guardian's report was based on a document provided by fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, since charged criminally with leaking U.S. government secrets. Snowden is believed to be at an airport in Moscow, his U.S. passport having been revoked by Washington.

To justify the database, U.S. officials point to a provision of the U.S. Patriot Act that requires companies to turn over "tangible things," although before the Guardian's report it was not publicly known that the Justice Department and the surveillance court interpreted the term to mean entire databases in bulk.

Some U.S. senators had said in 2011 that Americans would be stunned and alarmed if they knew how the government was interpreting parts of the Patriot Act.

Although the Justice Department said the surveillance court should not grant the ACLU's request, it wrote that the court is free to release opinions on its own under certain rules. The government is considering declassifying yet more records to help the public understand the surveillance programs, it added.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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Comments (14)
WhyMeLord wrote:
Biggest garbage pile since NYC collectors were on strike.
There is no reasonable defense for this level of secrecy.
This used to be a free democracy; when/where did we go astray?
Nameless, unfounded fear is driving all this foolishness.
IN GOD WE TRUST, not in government we trust, or am I mistaken?
There is no one, and I repeat NO ONE, who should have this power.
It’s time for all good men to come to the aid of our country.

Jul 05, 2013 6:39pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
MikeBarnett wrote:
This is more covering of backsides. The Bush and Obama regimes and the US intelligence agencies have committed treason against the US by gathering more data than can be examined and analyzed in thousands of years. This prevents US intelligence agencies from doing the kinds of work that might allow the US to win any of its wars. The US regimes and their intelligence agencies have worked to make themselves “look good” despite 2 lost wars and a number of failed interventions. The US leaders are committing treason against the US, and the US continues to lose.

Jul 05, 2013 6:43pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Speaker2 wrote:
So much for the Constitution and the ideas behind freedom, liberty and privacy. If you suspect me breaking the law and have proof, then by all means get a warrant.

But to say, you can track us all, with no evident of wrong doing is completely wrong. This is taking National Security too far and without your citizen’s knowledge. The fact you track our phone, internet and photocopy our mail is something I would expect from Russia or China.

Understand, I would prefer to have risk and my liberty than spying and safety, even if there was a 9-11 event once a year for example.

Its really hard to proud of the US and the 4th of July, in a country that no longer practices the freedom and justice the country was founded on.

Jul 05, 2013 7:51pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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