Advocates call for spy court changes

A slew of privacy advocates is urging Congress to shake up the federal court overseeing the nation’s surveillance operations.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) needs a special advocate for privacy and civil liberties, signers of a report out on Thursday from the Constitution Project said.

That position should be empowered to argue the case against the government’s spy plans because everyone, even the programs’ supporters, should be able to subject them to tough scrutiny, they said.

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"I strongly disagree with those who suggest the FISC is a rubber stamp for government surveillance requests," said James Robertson, a former judge on the secretive court. "But the addition of an adversary would improve the FISC's ability to ensure the government properly complies with constitutional and legal limits while performing its necessary national security activities."

The House last week passed the USA Freedom Act to rein in the National Security Agency (NSA) and add transparency to the FISC.

But instead of a special advocate for the court, the final version of the bill instead called for a team of “friends of the court” to be created and offer advice when judges ask for it.

That’s not enough, advocates said.

"The public deserves a full, independent voice before the court whenever it considers surveillance programs that might jeopardize fundamental rights to privacy," said Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project.  

Reform-minded lawmakers have agreed with the call for a special advocate and not just an advisory team.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who will bring the bill up in his panel next month, has said that he will push for a more active advocate as the legislation moves through his chamber. 

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