Spy court appoints new advisers under NSA reform law

Spy court appoints new advisers under NSA reform law
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The shadowy federal court overseeing American intelligence activities appointed five lawyers on Wednesday to serve as special standing advisers.

Wednesday’s appointment comes as part of a sweeping intelligence reform bill passed this summer, which also ordered the National Security Agency (NSA) to shut down its bulk collection of Americans’ phone records this weekend.


Civil liberties advocates hope that the outside legal advice would help to balance the scale on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which operates in secrecy. Unlike other courts, the FISC does not operate under an adversarial process, and critics say it almost always sides with the government's demands.

The five new “friends of the court” are former acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel Jonathan Cedarbaum; criminal defense attorney John Cline; Georgetown University law professor Laura Donohue; former aide to Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderChristie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group Democrats look to state courts as redistricting battle heats up On The Trail: Census kicks off a wild redistricting cycle MORE Amy Jeffress; and information security lawyer Marc Zwillinger.

The selections earned some early praise from privacy advocates.

American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer called the picks “an impressive list,” and the Electronic Frontier Foundation said there were “some great names on the list.”

Under the NSA reform law, called the USA Freedom Act, the five lawyers will be tasked with offering “legal and or technical expertise” for any issue that the FISA court decides “presents a novel or significant interpretation of the law.”

Some critics were left sore that the court decided to only appoint lawyers, instead of technical experts, as it was allowed to do. Given that new technologies have stretched the barriers of the government’s spying powers, some advocates had hoped that the intelligence court would turn to technologists for their expertise in addition to lawyers.