US National Security Agency

US surveillance court rejects Obama's proposal for more NSA oversight

In blow to Obama, judges who authorise spying on Americans tell president his plan for privacy advocate at hearings is 'unnecessary'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 4:37am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 4:37am

Judges on the US government's secret surveillance court have strongly rejected any proposed changes to their review process, putting unexpected pressure on the White House as President Barack Obama prepares a speech aimed at bolstering public confidence in how the government collects intelligence.

In a blunt letter to the House and Senate intelligence and judiciary committees, US District Judge John Bates made it clear on Tuesday that the 11 judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (Fisa) Court are united in opposition to key recommendations by a presidential task force last month aimed at increasing transparency and judicial oversight, including at least one that Obama has tentatively endorsed.

The surveillance court judges have not previously gone public, so it is difficult to gauge how much weight their opposition carries. But their scepticism adds to a list of hurdles for those advocating significant reforms following former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's massive disclosures of domestic and foreign surveillance programs.

Most surprisingly, Bates said the judges opposed adding an independent advocate for privacy and civil liberties to the court's classified hearings, saying the proposal was "unnecessary - and could prove counterproductive".

Obama and some intelligence officials have publicly signalled support for creating an adversarial legal process in the court, which now hears only from government lawyers, and aides have suggested that the president will create an advocate's position or call for legislation to do so in a speech tomorrow at the Justice Department.

The proposal was widely viewed as one of the least controversial changes under consideration at the White House. But Bates disagreed sharply, arguing that "the participation of an advocate would neither create a truly adversarial process nor constructively assist the courts in assessing the facts, as the advocate would be unable to communicate with the target or conduct an independent investigation".

Obama is also expected to endorse changes to the way the government collects millions of Americans' phone records.

The most sweeping recommendation by the presidential task force would force the National Security Agency to stop collecting and archiving Americans' telephone toll records, and shift the responsibility for the vast database back to the telephone companies or to a private entity.

Additional reporting by Associated Press