Spy court orders release of phone surveillance opinion

The government needs to release a partially declassified opinion from the federal court overseeing surveillance activities about its bulk collection of phone records, the court said.

In a decision handed down on Friday, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordered the release of the Feb. 19, 2013, opinion that explains how a portion of the Patriot Act allows the National Security Agency to collect people’s phone records by Aug. 29. Section 215 of that law allows the agency to collect “metadata” — or information about which numbers people call, how often and how long the calls last but not the actual content of people’s conversations — in order to track and stop terrorists.

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The surveillance court said in its order that the release “would enhance, rather than detract from, public understanding of the Court’s reasoning as to the legal issues presented.” 

The order comes in response to a petition form the American Civil Liberties Union and the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic.

Reform to Section 215 of the Patriot Act is currently under debate in Congress, where a bill from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would end the NSA’s bulk collection of the phone records and require the government obtain a court order to collect data from private phone companies.

Leahy unveiled a new compromise version of his bill last month, before lawmakers left town for the month-long August recess. The bill faces an uncertain future, however, with time dwindling before the end of the year and midterm elections looming in November.