02/07/2014 11:07 am ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

John Roberts Adds Two Judges With Democratic Ties To FISA Court

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

By David Ingram

WASHINGTON, Feb 7 (Reuters) - The secret court that authorizes U.S. spying operations such as the massive collection of telephone data is adding two judges who were put on the bench by Democratic presidents, a spokesman said on Friday, in a shift following criticism the court is one-sided.

The appointments to the 11-member U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court came without comment from Chief Justice John Roberts, who in addition to heading the U.S. Supreme Court has exclusive power to determine the makeup of the spy court.

Roberts is a conservative judge appointed to the high court in 2005 by Republican President George W. Bush. The vast majority of the judges he has chosen for the spy court have been Republican appointees.

Seattle-based U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Tallman joined the court for a term that started last month. Democratic President Bill Clinton appointed him as a federal appeals court judge in 2000.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, based in Washington, D.C., will join the court in May. Democratic President Barack Obama appointed him as a federal trial judge in 2011.

Federal judges serve for life, but their terms on the spy court are fixed at seven years. They go on hearing their regular cases while helping on the spy court.

Civil liberties advocates, as well as Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, have said that the court risks its impartiality by having at one point 10 of its 11 seats held by Republican-nominated judges.

Congress created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 1978 after revelations that federal agents had routinely and unlawfully spied on Americans.

By law, the court oversees investigations related to non-U.S. targets, and it usually approves requests made by Justice Department lawyers.

In an annual report to Congress that is publicly available, the Justice Department said that in 2012 the government made 212 applications for access to business records. The court denied none of the applications but amended 200 of them, the report said.

Leaks to the news media from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed, beginning last year, how expansive the court's orders can be.

The court approved, for example, the creation of a database that includes information on virtually every U.S. telephone call, such as the length of the calls and the numbers dialed. Obama has ordered changes to that program. (Editing by Howard Goller and Steve Orlofsky)



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