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FISA Court Asked To Hold Public Arguments On Bulk Phone Records Collection

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The National Security Agency (NSA) facility under construction stands in Bluffdale, Utah, U.S., on June 7, 2013. The Obama administration confirmed the existence of classified programs to collect data on U.S. residents' telephone calls and foreign nationals Internet activity, a day after reports emerged of a secret court order compelling Verizon Communications Inc. to provide the National Security Agency with data on all its customers telephone use. (George Frey/Bloomberg) | Getty

A civil liberties group is asking the secretive court that oversees the National Security Agency's surveillance programs to open up its deliberations to the public.

In a Wednesday letter, Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to force the government to provide a public briefing to the entire court the next time it seeks to reauthorize its bulk collection of telephone records. The letter also requested the court allow third party groups to submit briefs of their own on the phone record surveillance.

"This is a serious and different kind of issue than the FISA court usually looks at, because it goes to the broader interpretation of the statute that hasn't been interpreted on this issue by other courts," Martin said of the phone records collecting.

The group's letter is addressed to Reggie Walton, presiding judge of the court. In recent weeks Walton has taken unusual steps to open the court up to the public, issuing statements and declassifying an opinion justifying the government's bulk telephone record collection.

"I think that both the court and the government have been unusually and importantly transparent since the Snowden disclosures," Martin said. Still, she added, it was difficult to determine whether they have been transparent enough. "It's hard to say without knowing the universe of what's there and what's being withheld, and I don't know yet, I'm not sure who has that picture."

Martin's request is similar to efforts in both the House and the Senate to create a "constitutional advocate" who would argue for the protection of civil liberties in closed court proceedings. Her group's proposal would also rely on a third-party to file court briefs and take an adversarial position against the government, but in public, rather than behind closed doors.

Another key difference is that the group's requested reform seeks to have the court change its own internal procedures, which could happen more quickly than legislative changes dependent on Congress.

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