The release of classified information by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has sparked several debates.
Among those is whether he's a hero or a traitor or a whistle-blower. Is government snooping violating our Fourth Amendment rights or is it justified to stop terrorists? Does the U.S. really have a secret court that hears from only one side (the government's) and issues secret rulings while President Barack Obama tries to claim it is being "transparent"?
The answer to the last question is "yes."
Snowden's disclosures have raised the profile of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court, which was established by Congress in 1978 to rule on wiretapping applications.
Since 9/11, of course, its influence has increased.
The revelation that Americans are under surveillance in the name of the war on terror doesn't surprise many people.
It also seems the majority of Americans are willing to allow the government to collect that sort of information, given the near unanimous passage of the Patriot Act in 2001 and its reauthorization in 2006.
The FISA court's power has increased so much in the last six years that it is "almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come," according to a New York Times article.
It is made up of 11 judges, appointed by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who serve seven-year terms.
One former judge on the court insists it doesn't serve as a rubber stamp and that some security agency warrant applications are required to be adjusted or their focus narrowed.
However, of the 1,789 applications the FISA court was asked to approve last year, only one was not approved. The Chicago Tribune reported that between 2001 and 2012, FISA judges OK'd "20,909 surveillance and property search warrants and denied just 10 applications."
The low, secretive profile of the court and the approval percentage of warrant applications call for some changes. We have a couple of suggestions:
? The contention that the FISA court is not a rubber stamp has not been borne out, judging by applications request. It seems the government gets more than the benefit of the doubt when applying for warrants.
We support a bipartisan effort in Congress that would declassify and allow the release of a summary of the court's decisions. When it comes to our privacy, we should get more disclosure from this court.
? The court was set up with regard to surveillance of foreign nationals in the United States. The huge data collections, such as the warrant approval that allowed cellphone carrier Verizon to provide daily records from April to July 19, surely includes information on Americans who are not tied to any security risks.
We believe that any information on Americans who are not germane to the warrant application should be destroyed. The NSA should not be allowed to look at records inadvertently collected.
Balancing national security with the rights and privacy of U.S. citizens is a tough act.
The Fourth Amendment guards against unreasonable search and seizures and states that probable cause is needed in order for a warrant to be granted. We don't believe it's reasonable for the FISA court to allow such a big net to be cast, like in the Verizon example, and then to allow the information of those mistakenly caught up in the sweep to be analyzed.
We understand the government's role in national security, but it must take into account our rights as American citizens.
Green Bay Press-Gazette