For 35 years the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has been the judicial equivalent of a stellar black hole — everything goes in but nothing is allowed to escape.
Last week, however, for the first time since its creation, the Obama administration declassified and made public large portions of an 85-page top-secret ruling by the court that had been the subject of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The surveillance court was created in 1978, designed to act as a safeguard to protect the public from the National Security Agency’s ever-expanding eavesdropping capabilities, and its long history of widespread illegal spying. For three decades leading up to 1975, for example, the agency had been secretly reading, without a warrant, millions of telegrams to and from Americans as they passed over the wires of Western Union and other telegraph companies — the Internet of the day. That was supposed to come to a halt with the creation of the court.
These newly released documents, however, show a massive breakdown in the court’s oversight responsibilities — and an equally massive effort by the NSA to circumvent the law and secretly conduct widespread operations directed at Americans.
In the 2011 ruling, the court’s then chief judge, John D. Bates, harshly admonished the agency for repeatedly misleading the court about its warrantless eavesdropping on tens of thousands of domestic email messages and Internet web searches for the previous three years. In his unusually harsh rebuke, Bates warned that the NSA’s operations had violated the Constitution and exemplified a pattern of misrepresentation to the court — what most people would call lies — by agency officials.