Civil Liberties

Surveillance Court Relies on Whatever the Government Tells It, Says Chief Judge


U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton
Official government photo

Yesterday, Scott Shackford noted that the National Security Agency has violated legal restrictions on the use of its surveillance powers thousands of times just since 2008. This we know only because of documents from the treasure trove released by Edward Snowden. How could this be when NSA actions are overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court? As it turns out, the chief judge of the FISC admits the court relies almost entirely on the accuracy of what it's told by government officials.

According to Carol D. Leonnig at the Washington Post:

"The FISC is forced to rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the Court," its chief, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, said in a written statement to The Washington Post. "The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance, and in that respect the FISC is in the same position as any other court when it comes to enforcing [government] compliance with its orders."

That's Judge Walton pictured, by the way.

The court's role, it seems safe to say, is to listen to government officials' assurances that everything they do is on the up and up, nod sagely, and then add a little judicial window dressing to whatever the surveillance state is up to.

Not so long ago, President Obama defended the U.S. government's surveillance procedures, saying:

[I]f people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here.

Un-shockingly, given what we know about how it does its business, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has been called out as a rubber stamp that rarely rejects a surveillance request.

Mr. President, we have some problems here.