The PJ Tatler

Secret Court that Swears it Isn't a Rubber Stamp Renews NSA Telephone Snooping Program

Earlier this month, a judge who served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court laughed off the notion that the secret court was a “rubber stamp” for the government.


Royce Lambert, who served on the court from 1995 to 2002, claimed that anyone who knows him would say he wasn’t a rubber stamp for the spy agencies:

“You’ve had judges like me, and the public perception of me is certainly not that I’m a rubber stamp for the government,” Lamberth said in an interview, laughing. As if to underscore the point, Lamberth had issued a ruling earlier in the day ordering the government to stop genital searches of Guantanamo Bay detainees who want to meet with their lawyers.

Lamberth was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and has been chief judge since 2008. On Tuesday, when he turns 70, he’ll step down as chief judge of the court but remain as a senior judge with a reduced caseload.

Last year, the government asked the FISA court to approve 1,789 applications to spy on foreign intelligence targets, according to a Justice Department notice to Congress dated April 30. The court approved all but one — and that was withdrawn by the government.

But Lamberth said that doesn’t mean the approval is automatic. Often, judges come back with questions or comments about the requests and require intelligence agencies to modify them to meet their standards.

He said he doesn’t remember rejecting any government request during his time on the FISA court. The overwhelming number of those “were the kinds of things we should be doing to protect our country,” Lamberth said. “They were the kinds of surveillances that I thought the executive branch was right to do. And I felt that each one was the kind of thing that we needed to do to keep our country safe — both from spies and from terrorists.”


Yes, I’m sure all the FISA court judges are as dedicated and respectful of civil liberties as this guy. And that’s what scares me. Eighteen hundred wiretap requests and not one was rejected? Since 1979, there have been 39,000 requests made to the secret court and only 11 have been turned down.

This is relevant because this same court that has rarely found the government overreaching has just renewed the telephone snooping program revealed by Edward Snowden.


The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, said its authority to maintain the program expired on Friday and that the government sought and received a renewal from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

The ODNI said in a statement it was disclosing the renewal as part of an effort at greater transparency following Snowden’s disclosure of the telephone data collection and email surveillance programs.

A top official said earlier on Friday that intelligence officials were working to declassify information on the programs that Snowden had already partially disclosed.

Robert Litt, general counsel of ODNI, said he was optimistic the intelligence community could make “a lot of progress” in declassifying the information.

U.S. officials faced a public uproar after Snowden began leaking classified information about telephone and email collection programs. Intelligence officials have been pushing to justify the programs as legal, particularly under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which requires a secret court to approve the programs.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court sided on Monday with Yahoo Inc and ordered the Obama administration to declassify and publish a 2008 court decision justifying Prism, the data collection program revealed last month by Snowden.

The ruling could offer a rare glimpse into how the government has legally justified its spy agencies’ data collection programs under FISA.

“One of the hurdles to declassification earlier was that the existence of the programs was classified,” Litt said in response to questions after a speech at the Brookings Institution. “It’s very hard to think about releasing the opinion that says a particular program is legal if you’re not going to disclose what the program is. Now that the program has been declassified, we’re going back and we’re looking at these opinions.”

Litt said intelligence officials were looking across the spectrum of its activities to see what could be declassified.

“We’re trying to prioritize things that we think are of the greatest public interest,” he said. “The highest priority is getting out fuller information about the programs about which partial information is already out.”


Question: If they feel they can safely declassify a lot of this stuff, what did Snowden do that was so God-awful injurious to American intelligence that he deserves to be hounded all over the world?

Sure, revealing the existence of the program would automatically negate the need for total secrecy regarding some of it. But don’t these actions speak to the notion that at least some of these FISA rulings could be safely published?

Perhaps the ruling that renewed the telephone surveillance program could be published as well. It’s hard to trust a court that appears to grant the government wide latitude in its surveillance efforts.

Join the conversation as a VIP Member