WASHINGTON An outside lawyer could act as a public advocate on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees the U.S. government's electronic eavesdropping programs under a bill introduced Friday in the House of Representatives.
The court makes its decisions on government surveillance requests without hearing from anyone but Justice Department lawyers, raising deep concerns about whether enough is done to protect Americans' privacy.
U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, a senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said his plan would create a pool of independent attorneys to weigh in at the court on significant constitutional cases and reviews of major surveillance programs.
"Even though the FISC's deliberations are necessarily secret in nature, it's vital that the American people have confidence that there are voices within the process arguing forcefully and effectively on behalf of the Fourth Amendment and privacy concerns of ordinary Americans," Schiff said in a statement.
The court's activities have come under new scrutiny since disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the government collects far more Internet and telephone data than previously known.
The idea of allowing outside parties into the court has attracted some support.
President Barack Obama said last month he supported having a civil liberties representative weigh in on the court's deliberations.
Democrats Richard Blumenthal, Ron Wyden and Tom Udall, have introduced similar legislation in the U.S. Senate.
In July, James Robertson, a retired judge who once served on the court, said the system would work better if some approximation of an adversarial system existed.
Robertson made his suggestion during a public meeting held by the bipartisan Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was set up in 2004 to advise the White House on civil liberties concerned raised by intelligence gathering.
Schiff's measure would enable that oversight board to set up the pool of independent lawyers.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Doina Chiacu)