The court ruled that the White House must identify the opinions in question by Oct. 4.
"The unauthorized disclosure of in June 2013 of a Section 215 order, and government statements in response to that disclosure, have engendered considerable public interest and debate about Section 215," wrote Saylor. "Publication of FISC opinions relating to this opinion would contribute to an informed debate."
The ruling comes in response to a petition by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking greater government transparency. But because the ACLU already has a similar FOIA case pending in another court, Saylor wrote that the new FISC order can only cover documents that don't relate to that case. Depending on how the other case turns out, the ACLU could come back to the FISA court later and ask again.
Senior intelligence officials have voluntarily published some of its surveillance-related documents in recent weeks and vow to release more, but this marks the first time the FISA court has given a direct order to the administration on declassification.
The ruling comes a day after President Obama's top spy acknowledged that Snowden, who leaked U.S. data that revealed how the federal government was monitoring citizens' Internet and phone accounts, may have done a public service.
"I think it's clear that some of the conversations this has generated, some of the debate, actually needed to happen," said national intelligence chief James Clapper Thursday. "If there's a good side to this, maybe that's it."
The Justice Department appears to feel otherwise on Snowden. In June it charged the Maryland native with espionage.
That some administration officials are seeing another side suggests a broader discussion about government secrecy — and not just this particular surveillance program — may be in order.