Snowden NSA Leaks: FISA Court Orders Release Of More Secret Opinions

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Privacy activists demonstrate at a rally this year.

The Obama administration will release more opinions of the secret court that oversees the government’s surveillance programs that pertain to the controversial bulk collection of Americans’ phone-call records, thanks in large part to National Security Agency, or NSA, leaker Edward Snowden.

These latest disclosures come at the behest of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISC, itself, according to an order published Friday. The court found that releasing these documents would be in the interest of a public debate over NSA’s spying programs.

The order, written by FISC Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, ordered the White House to reveal all FISC opinions relating to the USA Patriot Act’s section 215 -- the provision used to authorize the phone data program -- after May 2011, excluding opinions that are at issue in a second ACLU lawsuit in a different court. Saylor gave the administration until Oct. 4 to indicate which opinions would qualify for release.

“The unauthorized disclosure in June 2013 of a Section 215 order, and government statements in response to that disclosure, have engendered considerable interest and debate about Section 215,” Saylor wrote. “Publication of FISC opinions relating to this provision would contribute to an informed debate.”

Friday’s order is the latest in a series of victories for transparency advocates who have seen the legal case for disclosure bolstered by Snowden’s leaks. It also comes just days after the government released a cache of earlier court and government documents that dealt with the court’s interpretation of Section 215 and past privacy violations, the result of another lawsuit. And the more documents are released, the more the courts appear inclined to favor further releases -- after all, if the program’s existence is already public, the government’s interest in keeping the programs secret disappears.

“Publication with only limited redactions may now be feasible, given the extent of the government’s recent public disclosures about how Section 215 is implemented,” Saylor wrote in Friday’s order.

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