Surveillance court denies being a 'rubber stamp'

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He said the National Security Agency often has to revise its surveillance plans and sometimes drops applications altogether if a judge indicates they would not be approved. Discussions over whether to approve a surveillance request often consists of informal communication between the judge and the intelligence agencies, Walton explained in the letter to leaders of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.

He said he believes the three-month period is typical for the court and that he would continue to collect statistics on the revision rates. 

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the statement makes clear that the court "does not ‘rubber stamp’ requests for surveillance of terrorism suspects.” 

"The FISA Court is tasked with conducting careful legal analysis of all administration requests, and these data reinforce my belief that the FISA Court is taking that mandate seriously," she said.

The FISA Court, which is made up of federal judges appointed to the panel by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, was created to oversee secret government surveillance and to enforce privacy protections. But many civil liberties advocates argue that the court, which only hears arguments from officials in favor of surveillance, is a poor check on government overreach.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is working on legislation to rein in NSA surveillance and toughen oversight, said he agrees that the court is not a "rubber stamp."

"However, it is clear that FISA Court judges are now tackling significant constitutional issues and have assumed a regulatory role not envisioned when the Court was created," Leahy said. "We must consider reforms to the court’s procedures as well as limitations on the government’s surveillance authorities, and I will soon introduce bipartisan legislation that addresses these very issues.”

Leahy's draft bill, which is co-authored by Patriot Act sponsor Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), would create a special advocate's office tasked with arguing in favor of stronger privacy protections before the FISA Court. The advocate would be able to appeal decisions, and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board would be given subpoena power to investigate issues related to privacy and national security. 

The bill would also require the attorney general to disclose significant court decisions related to an interpretation of law.