Allan Kornblum dies; wrote key parts of surveillance act

Allan Kornblum helped secure wiretap authorizations against some of the nation's most notorious spies.
Allan Kornblum helped secure wiretap authorizations against some of the nation's most notorious spies. (Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010

Allan Kornblum, 71, a federal magistrate for the northern district of Florida who as a Justice Department official wrote key parts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, died of cancer Feb. 12 at the University of Florida Shands Cancer Center in Gainesville, Fla., where he lived.

Mr. Kornblum, a former FBI special agent, was hired in 1975 by the U.S. Justice Department to write the FBI's guidelines for domestic security and counterintelligence work. He was appointed three years later by then-Attorney General Griffin Bell to handle all FBI and National Security Agency wiretap applications as deputy counsel for the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review.

In 2000, he left the Justice Department to join the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as its first official legal adviser, working with the 11 rotating federal judges who heard cases brought under the FISA statute, which allows surveillance of foreigners suspected of espionage or planning acts of terrorism. The law also allows wiretapping of Americans with connections to foreign suspects.

"The FISA statute has been the most successful foreign intelligence program the United States has had since the code-breaking operations of World War II, the deciphering of the Japanese codes and the German codes," Mr. Kornblum told the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2006. "It has allowed the U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct intelligence activities beyond what they ever expected and to succeed in many ways which have never been revealed, because in the intelligence business, your success is measured by the fact that these things are never disclosed."

He appeared at the Senate hearing with four judges who oversaw FISA to urge Congress to give the FISA court a formal role in supervising the surveillance program and called for stringent rules on what information could be retained on Americans caught up in the investigation. The little-known and secretive court became controversial after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and after President George W. Bush decided to bypass the court in permitting domestic eavesdropping without warrants.

"He was a very principled guy. He was a very intellectually honest guy," said James A. Baker, associate deputy attorney general in the Justice Department, who had worked for and with Mr. Kornblum. "He had such concern and regard for the Constitution . . . and the Fourth Amendment. He sought to implement the statute according to law and his understanding of the law."

Allan Nathaniel Kornblum was born in New York. He graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in police administration and from New York University Law School in 1961. In 1969, he received a master's degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

He joined the New York City Police Department as a patrol officer in the early 1960s, then became a criminal investigator with the Treasury Department. After two years in the Army as a military police officer, Mr. Kornblum joined the FBI, where he responded to the fatal Apollo 1 fire in Florida in 1967 and then was transferred to Mississippi to work on civil rights cases.

In 1967, he interviewed Ernest Avants, a former Ku Klux Klansman accused of killing Ben Chester White, an elderly black sharecropper, the previous summer. "I blew his head off with a shotgun," Avants told Mr. Kornblum, after another man had shot the victim 16 times with a rifle. Avants was acquitted in state court but faced a federal charge in 2003 after prosecutors realized that the victim's body was found on federal land.

Mr. Kornblum said he remembered Avants's exact words because it was "one of those singular events in a person's life. It's burned in my memory. . . . [Avants] was very confident he would be acquitted of the murder."

Avants was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2004.

By 1969, Mr. Kornblum had become director of security at Princeton University, where he received a doctorate from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1973, his dissertation on ethical behavior and corruption in the New York City Police Department. Because he was a student as well as an administrator, he was able to attend many "students-only" meetings as unrest swept the nation's campuses. He creatively ended a December 1970 "snow riot," a semi-nude demonstration by hundreds of students at the first snowfall, by starting a chant of "Dillon! Dillon!" that directed them to Dillon Gym, where hot chocolate and doughnuts awaited. Two years later, after women had been admitted to Princeton, he established escort services to ensure their safety.

While working on FISA requests, he helped authorities obtain wiretap authorizations for some of the nation's most notorious spies, according to his family. And in the late 1990s, he raised concerns about the FBI's investigation of Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist accused of spying for China, noting that although the agency and the Energy Department had multiple suspects, only Lee and his wife were investigated.

A passionate New York Giants football fan who had held season tickets since the 1960s, he coached youth football for almost 15 years with the Fort Hunt Youth football program in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. He moved to Florida in 2003.

He was appointed magistrate judge on May 14, 2003, and worked until a week before his death.

Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Helen Kornblum of Gainesville; two sons, Aaron Kornblum of Mercer Island, Wash., and Jesse Kornblum of Silver Spring; and three grandchildren.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company