Surveillance Court Quietly Moving
Monday, March 2, 2009
First, the workers encased the room in reinforced concrete. Then came the thick wood-and-metal doors that seal into the walls. Behind those walls they labored in secret for two years, building a courtroom, judge's chambers and clerk's offices. The only sign that they were done came recently, when biometric hand scanners and green "Restricted Access" placards were placed at the entrances.
What workers have finally completed -- or perhaps not; few really know, and none would say -- is the nation's most secure courtroom for its most secretive court. In coming days, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will move from its current base at the Justice Department and settle into a new $2 million home just off a public hallway in the District's federal courthouse.
The relocation is a rare public action by a mysterious Washington institution that is judged by its ability to keep secrets while overseeing the government's efforts to gather them. Its role, generally, is to determine whether the federal government can spy on U.S. citizens or foreigners in the United States in terrorism or espionage investigations.
Created in 1978 to curtail abusive government spying, the court enjoyed a rather obscure existence until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when authorities began to frantically intensify their spying efforts.
As the number of warrant applications doubled over the years, civil liberties advocates increasingly began to express concerns that the rights of Americans were being violated. They accused the court of being overly influenced by the government officials it oversees.
That criticism played a key role in the decision to move the court to the federal courthouse, according to judges who have served on it.
"I have struggled with the perception for years that we did whatever the government wanted and were rubber stamps," said U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who served as the secret court's chief judge from 1995 through 2002 and set in motion the move. "That was not and is not true, and this is a symbolic move that will help counter that."
When the court was created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the only secure area available was in the Justice Department. That put the FISA judges in the unusual position of playing on the government's home field.
The court, which has 11 judges appointed to seven-year terms by the chief justice of the United States, rents the space and supplies its own clerks and staff lawyers. One judge sits on the court at a time, in rotating week-long shifts.
Serious planning to move the court began in 2005, when a new wing was added to the District's federal courthouse on Constitution Avenue NW. By 2007, workers were tearing out old grand jury rooms and redesigning the structure under rigid security standards, said Lamberth, now chief judge of the District's federal court. He said the move would come in March but declined to provide the exact day, citing security reasons.
The FISA court's chief judge, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, rarely grants interviews and declined to comment on the court's move. The court's spokesman, Sheldon Snook, also declined to comment. Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on the move, calling it an internal court matter.
The government generally must obtain a FISA judge's authorization to conduct surveillance targeting a person in the United States or a U.S. citizen abroad. Little else is known about how the oversight process works. Even when major controversies involve the FISA court -- such as tussles between its judges and the Bush administration over the government's warrantless wiretapping program -- the public usually learns the barest details of what transpired.