Gavel Grab

Controversy Renewed as a Result of New Surveillance Disclosures

Surveillance, privacy, and civil liberties remained perhaps the hottest Washington topics of the day on Friday after disclosures about the National Security Agency and FBI gathering intelligence through leading Internet companies, to track foreign targets. This followed earlier reports (see Gavel Grab) about government collection of telephone records for millions of Americans.

A national security court figured in the news reports about both surveillance programs, and it was becoming a topic of commentary.

The Washington Post and The Guardian broke the news about Internet surveillance. “Surveillance Leaks Likely to Restart Debate on Privacy,” declared a New York Times headline. According to the article, “an array of civil liberties advocates and libertarian conservatives said the disclosures provided the most detailed confirmation yet of what has been long suspected about what the critics call an alarming and ever-widening surveillance state.”

The role of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court in ordering the telephone record collection was addressed by a New York Times editorial. “We are not questioning the legality under the Patriot Act of the court order disclosed by The Guardian. But we strongly object to using that power in this manner,” the editorial said.

At The Atlantic online, legal analyst Andrew Cohen contended the collection of telephone records represented overreach and that each branch of the government was “complicit.” He wrote, “The functionaries of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches figured out a way not just to keep it all secret but to be able to justify this warrantless surveillance by claiming it was ordained by another branch.”

Then-FISA Court Judge Roger Vinson signed the controversial order. In a different role, he wrote a lower-court decision two years ago invalidating the new federal health care law, according to the Associated Press, and critics accused him then of overreaching.

The surveillance program involving Internet companies “appeared to involve eavesdropping on the contents of communications of foreigners,” according to the New York Times. A senior Obama administration official, the Times reported, identified its legal basis as “the so-called FISA Amendments Act, a 2008 law that allows the government to obtain an order from a national security court to conduct blanket surveillance of foreigners abroad without individualized warrants even if the interception takes place on American soil.”

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