FISA Court Interpretation Of 'Relevant' Allowed Broad Surveillance: Report

07/08/2013 12:14 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has broadened the definition of the word "relevant" to justify the National Security Agency's mass telephone and internet surveillance, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Reports on the court's rulings, which remain classified, seem to confirm the concerns of senators who are seeking to declassify the court's decisions. These senators allege that the FISC has interpreted the Patriot Act in unprecedented ways that Congress did not intend.

FISC rulings have broadened the meaning of the word "relevant," moving further away from Supreme Court precedent that declared evidence could only be considered if there was a "reasonable possibility" that it could produce information related to an investigation.

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have introduced a bill that would require the Attorney General to declassify FISC opinions, with some exceptions for national security. A similar measure has been introduced in the House. However, a related amendment just garnered the votes of 37 senators in December 2012, and Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower who revealed the continued existence of the NSA programs, has earned bipartisan scorn.

The FISA court, created by Congress in 1978, was designed to be a check against government surveillance in the wake of the Nixon administration. However, in practice, the court rarely has denied surveillance requests.

A Supreme Court petition by the Electronic Privacy Information Center hinges on the definition of "relevant." The group, seeking to block the gathering of telephone records "metadata," asks how all of the NSA's information gathering meets the standard of being "relevant."

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