Declassified Files Reveal NSA Routinely Ignored Courts

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Newly declassified documents reveal that the National Security Agency has a long history of ignoring or avoiding court protections of the 4th Amendment. The heavily redacted 1,000+ page data dump reads like a diary of federal judges scolding intelligence agencies for overreaching their authority.

“Those responsible for conducting oversight at the NSA had failed to do so effectively,” concluded Judge John D. Bates in 2009. Other pages show that at least one judge was furious with the NSA for “continuously” violating safeguards placed on the telephone meta-data collection program.

Media outlets are still combing through the files, but they appear to be of more historical significance. For instance, while Senator Patrick Leahy is now proposing to end the bulk data collection program, in the documents, a judge quoted one of Leahy’s 2001 floor speeches claiming that the surveillance was legal.

More than political infighting, the historical documents may also help privacy hawks sharpen their legal cases against the NSA. For the first time, the court order justifying broad surveillance programs was revealed.

Former presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) Colleen Kollar-Kotelly found that because intelligence officers had been previously able to tap the routing information of phone calls, it followed that they should able to surveil the “to” and “from” portions of email communications (known as “meta-data”).

However, because the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a call to hear challenges to bulk collection, these legal arguments will be more for persuading congress. And, since we’re dealing with the least productive congress is U.S. history, privacy advocates could be persuading for a long time.

Readers can see the documents on the Director of National Intelligence’s Tumblr page (for real, they have a Tumblr page).