WASHINGTON – A secret court charged with signing warrants for federal surveillance of suspects linked to terrorism and espionage has decided not to keep any secrets from Congress.
The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review told the Senate Judiciary Committee that it will apprise the committee of its decision on whether the Justice Department has made a grab for more wiretapping authority under the USA PATRIOT Act.
In a letter to committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the court said that it will give the committee the unclassified copy of its decision. The letter came days after senators complained that a FISA court meeting on the Justice Department appeal Monday had been closed and the court’s ruling made secret.
"As soon as we have an opinion completed, I will be sure to see that you get an unclassified copy,'' said U.S. Appeals Court Judge Ralph Guy, a member of the review court, in a Wednesday letter to the Judiciary Committee.
At the crux of the issue, senators and civil libertarians are concerned that the Justice Department has misinterpreted the PATRIOT Act, signed into law shortly after Sept. 11 last year to broaden intelligence and surveillance powers to combat terrorism by expanding the scope of secret searches and wiretaps to criminals not necessarily connected to terrorism or espionage.
"We need to know how this law is being interpreted and applied,'' Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Tuesday.
The court ruled in May that the Justice Department had been going too far in its interpretation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The Justice Department appealed, insisting that the PATRIOT Act changed the surveillance law to permit its use when collecting information about foreign spies or terrorists when it is "a significant purpose,'' rather than "the purpose,'' of such an investigation.
Monday's FISA meeting, the first ever in the 24-year history of this shadowy court, was to have given the judges a chance to review the Justice Department's appeal. It has made no announcement of whether it had made a decision or whether it would be made public.
In Tuesday’s committee hearing, Republican senators warned against tinkering with the new powers granted to the Justice Department under the PATRIOT Act, which they said was an important tool for protecting the nation against future terrorist attacks.
"Our intelligence gathering agencies must be able to communicate and share information," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, adding that he believes that FISA doesn’t give law enforcement enough powers.
"Some of us believe … that the interpretation of the original FISA law has become tighter and tighter and more burdensome over the years," he said. "I believe that the interpretation may have affected our national security."
The Associated Press contributed to this report