WASHINGTON – The secret surveillance court that approved the U.S. government’s broad collection of millions of Americans’ telephone and email records called Monday for the White House to declassify and release as much as it can of one of the court’s early legal decisions sanctioning that collection.
The chief of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordered the Justice Department to begin a review to see how much it can reasonably declassify from a 2008 opinion — a ruling in which the court allegedly ordered Yahoo to turn over the records of its customers’ online communications.
In his order Monday, Judge Reggie Walton also instructed the department to undergo the same declassification process for the arguments that Yahoo and the U.S. government made in the case. He said he would then release the declassified portions of the court’s justification — and the legal arguments — to the public.
Walton’s decision comes as the secret court bristles at suggestions it effectively rubber-stamped a government surveillance effort that swept up the records of tens of millions of Americans and infringed on privacy rights. That information, known as metadata, is stored and records who was called and for how long, and who was emailed and how often.
The White House ended the collection of bulk data on the emails and Internet usage of Americans in 2011 because the program was deemed unnecessary after an interagency review, White House officials said. It is not known if email collection continues in some other form. The collection of phone data continues.
Yahoo has pushed to unseal arguments and other documents in the case, saying the material will prove that the Silicon Valley giant fought against sharing its customers’ information and insisted that doing so was unconstitutional.
Walton gave the White House two weeks to report back on when it can release the Yahoo case documents, with redactions as necessary for material that should remain classified. He said the government had taken “no position” on whether the 2008 order should be shared with the public.