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  • Verizon order casts spotlight on secretive U.S. surveillance court

    (Reuters) – The leak of a document showing the Obama administration asked for millions of phone records has turned a spotlight anew on a secretive U.S. federal court set up 35 years ago to curb intelligence abuses.

    Made up of 11 judges who serve staggered seven-year terms, it is called the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The judges’ identities are known, along with the name of the person who appoints them: the chief justice, now John Roberts.

    In a departure from other courts, all of its rulings are secret and there is no adversarial system. Instead, government lawyers make a request and the judge either approves or rejects it. No other parties are present. The court approves nearly all requests, according to Justice Department data.

    In an annual report to Congress that is publicly available, the department said that in 2012 the government made 212 applications for access to business records, which is the same kind of request as that made of Verizon Communications Inc in the present case.

    The court denied none of the applications but amended 200 of them, the report said.

    The court also oversees applications for electronic surveillance and physical searches. There were 1,856 such applications in 2012, when all were approved except for one, which the government withdrew before the court could rule.

    Congress enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act setting up the court in 1978 amid concerns about the lack of legal oversight over the intelligence community’s activities.

    Activity by the U.S. intelligence community uncovered by congressional investigations included illegal mail-opening programs and the targeting of domestic protesters and political opponents by the Nixon administration.

    Now, critics say, the court set up to curb misconduct is rubber-stamping drastically expanded intelligence gathering efforts started after the September 11, 2001, attacks that prompt similar concerns about infringements on civil liberties.

    Government authority to obtain records was expanded further by the 2001 USA Patriot Act, which Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.


    The government cited Section 215 of the Patriot Act in making its request in the Verizon case. This section allows the government to ask the court for “any tangible things” as part of any authorized investigation related to terrorism or intelligence activities.

    As the Justice Department wrote in an October 2011 letter to members of Congress, the government must show, among other things, that the information sought is “relevant to an authorized national security investigation.”

    At least one president has tried to sidestep the court.

    President George W. Bush’s administration chose not to ask the court to approve wiretapping of calls between suspected terrorists until 2007, news accounts of the program’s existence prompted controversy. This incident led to increased concerns among civil liberties advocates that the government effectively had a green light to invade the privacy of Americans.

    Among the few who know how the secret court acts are members of Congress. The Obama administration has been keen to highlight how access to orders and opinions issued by the secret court is provided to members of both parties on the intelligence committees in both houses of Congress and on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    The court is comprised of sitting federal judges, appointed for life, who take on the additional responsibility for the seven years of the surveillance court term. The judges are all over the country, although several are in the Washington area.

    It is not clear exactly how the chief justice chooses the judges who serve on the court. Some of the judges have a national security background while others do not, according to a source familiar with the court. Further information on how Chief Justice Roberts appoints judges was not immediately available from a U.S. Supreme Court spokeswoman.


    The court has a physical presence in the U.S. District Court in Washington. The current presiding judge is Reggie Walton, a U.S. district judge in Washington who was appointed by Bush.

    The vast majority of judges now on the court are Republican appointees.

    The judge who approved the Verizon order, Roger Vinson, is a senior federal district judge in Florida. His term ended at the beginning of May. Vinson, a U.S. Navy veteran, was appointed to the bench by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

    The intelligence court’s workload increased after the September 11 attacks. Between 1978 and 2001, it received 46 emergency requests. In the year after September 11, there were 113, according to a legal textbook on national security by legal experts J. Douglas Wilson and David Kris, who was head of the Justice Department’s national security division from 2009 to 2011.

    A former member, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth of the District of Columbia, described his experience serving in a 2002 speech in which he denied that the court was a rubber stamp.

    “I ask questions. I get into the nitty gritty,” he said. “I know exactly what is going to be done and why. And my questions are answered, in every case, before I approve an application.”

    By Lawrence Hurley
    WASHINGTON | Thu Jun 6, 2013 6:40pm EDT
    (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Philip Barbara)

    Find this story at 6 June 2013

    @2013 Thomson Reuters

    How Congress unknowingly legalized PRISM in 2007

    On Sept. 11, 2007, the National Security Agency signed up Microsoft as its first partner for PRISM, a massive domestic surveillance program whose existence was reported by the Washington Post today. That’s barely a month after Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the Protect America Act.

    The Bush Administration portrayed the PAA as a technical fix designed to close a gap in America’s surveillance capabilities that had been opened by a then-recent ruling of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). It proved to be much more than that.

    While the details are still classified, reports suggested that the FISC had ruled that it was illegal for the government to intercept communications between two foreign endpoints if the communications happened to pass through the United States. Warning that the U.S. would suddenly lose the ability to continue its surveillance of terrorists, the administration pushed the PAA through Congress in a matter of days.

    In reality, the PAA represented a sweeping change to American surveillance law. Before conducting surveillance, the PAA only required executive branch officials to “certify” that there were “reasonable procedures” in place for ensuring that surveillance “concerns” persons located outside the United States and that the foreign intelligence is a “significant purpose” of the program. A single certification could cover a broad program intercepting the communications of numerous individuals. And there was no requirement for judicial review of individual surveillance targets within a “certified” program.

    Civil liberties groups warned that the PAA’s vague requirements and lack of oversight would give the government a green light to seek indiscriminate access to the private communications of Americans. They predicted that the government would claim that they needed unfettered access to domestic communications to be sure they had gotten all relevant information about suspected terrorists.

    It now appears that this is exactly what the government did. Today’s report suggests that the moment the PAA was the law of the land, the NSA started using it to obtain unfettered access to the servers of the nation’s leading online services. To comply with the requirement that the government not target Americans, PRISM searches are reportedly “designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s ‘foreignness’” — the lowest conceivable standard. PRISM training materials reportedly instruct users that if searches happen to turn up the private information of Americans, “it’s nothing to worry about.”

    The Protect America Act included a short six-month sunset provision, triggering another heated debate in the midst of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. But that debate focused more on the past than the future. The telecom industry sought retroactive immunity for their participation in warrantless surveillance programs prior to 2007, a request Congress did not grant with the PAA.

    Retroactive immunity for telecom companies dominated the 2008 debate, overshadowing the more important issue of the sweeping new powers that Congress had just granted to the executive branch. When Congress finally passed the FISA Amendments Act in July 2008, it included both immunity and a four-year extension of the government’s warrantless spying powers. But few members of Congress realized the breadth of the surveillance powers they were effectively approving.

    The FISA Amandments Act was re-authorized for another five years in 2012 with little controversy. It will come up for a vote again in 2017 — though Congress could always choose to revisit it earlier.

    By Timothy B. Lee, Updated: June 6, 2013

    Find this story at 6 June 2013

    © The Washington Post Company