The first chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court assured a House subcommittee yesterday that the court is not a captive of the executive branch even though it has never rejected an intelligence agency's request.
Senior U.S. District Court Judge George L. Hart Jr. agreed that "it would be desirable" for the special court to be located somewhere other than the Justice Department. But he described the matter as inconsequential to the seven judges who make up the panel.
"It didn't make any difference to me," said Hart, who stepped down from the surveillance court last year after a three-year term. "We are not in any way intimidated by the fact that we sit in the Justice Department."
Created by Congress in 1978 to guard against past abuses within the U.S. intelligence community, the court is supposed to weigh intelligence agency requests to conduct electronic surveillance of "foreign powers" and "agents of foreign powers" in this country. Through the end of 1982 the panel of rotating judges had approved 1,422 applications and had rejected none.
Testifying before a House Judiciary subcommittee headed by Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), Hart offered some rare glimpses of the court's operations. This week's oversight hearings are the first held to review the special court's operations.
Hart said the court was originally supposed to be assigned space in the Supreme Court building, but a secure enough chamber could not be found. With no budget of its own, the surveillance court wound up instead sitting between two and four days a month in a sixth-floor conference room at the Justice Department that was judged to be secure.