Secret Court's Judges Were Warned About NSA Spy Data
Thursday, February 9, 2006
Twice in the past four years, a top Justice Department lawyer warned the presiding judge of a secret surveillance court that information overheard in President Bush's eavesdropping program may have been improperly used to obtain wiretap warrants in the court, according to two sources with knowledge of those events.
The revelations infuriated U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly -- who, like her predecessor, Royce C. Lamberth, had expressed serious doubts about whether the warrantless monitoring of phone calls and e-mails ordered by Bush was legal. Both judges had insisted that no information obtained this way be used to gain warrants from their court, according to government sources, and both had been assured by administration officials it would never happen.
The two heads of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court were the only judges in the country briefed by the administration on Bush's program. The president's secret order, issued sometime after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, allows the National Security Agency to monitor telephone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and contacts overseas.
James A. Baker, the counsel for intelligence policy in the Justice Department's Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, discovered in 2004 that the government's failure to share information about its spying program had rendered useless a federal screening system that the judges had insisted upon to shield the court from tainted information. He alerted Kollar-Kotelly, who complained to Justice, prompting a temporary suspension of the NSA spying program, the sources said.
Yet another problem in a 2005 warrant application prompted Kollar-Kotelly to issue a stern order to government lawyers to create a better firewall or face more difficulty obtaining warrants.
The two judges' discomfort with the NSA spying program was previously known. But this new account reveals the depth of their doubts about its legality and their behind-the-scenes efforts to protect the court from what they considered potentially tainted evidence. The new accounts also show the degree to which Baker, a top intelligence expert at Justice, shared their reservations and aided the judges.
Both judges expressed concern to senior officials that the president's program, if ever made public and challenged in court, ran a significant risk of being declared unconstitutional, according to sources familiar with their actions. Yet the judges believed they did not have the authority to rule on the president's power to order the eavesdropping, government sources said, and focused instead on protecting the integrity of the FISA process.
It was an odd position for the presiding judges of the FISA court, the secret panel created in 1978 in response to a public outcry over warrantless domestic spying by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. The court's appointees, chosen by then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, were generally veteran jurists with a pro-government bent, and their classified work is considered a powerful tool for catching spies and terrorists.
The FISA court secretly grants warrants for wiretaps, telephone record traces and physical searches to the Justice Department, whose lawyers must show they have probable cause to believe that a person in the United States is the agent of a foreign power or government. Between 1979 and 2004, it approved 18,748 warrants and rejected five.
Lamberth, the presiding judge at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Kollar-Kotelly, who took over in May 2002, have repeatedly declined to comment on the program or their efforts to protect the FISA court. A Justice Department spokesman also declined to comment.
Both presiding judges agreed not to disclose the secret program to the 10 other FISA judges, who routinely handled some of the government's most highly classified secrets.
So early in 2002, the wary court and government lawyers developed a compromise. Any case in which the government listened to someone's calls without a warrant, and later developed information to seek a FISA warrant for that same suspect, was to be carefully "tagged" as having involved some NSA information. Generally, there were fewer than 10 cases each year, the sources said.