Privacy Law

Surveillance court chief says it must rely on government to provide accurate information

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President Obama has sought to reassure Americans about U.S. surveillance of phone call and Internet records by pointing to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

At a June news conference, Obama said the court’s judges have lifetime tenure and “they’re empowered to look over our shoulder at the executive branch to make sure that these programs aren’t being abused.”

But the court’s chief judge acknowledged its oversight ability is limited in a statement to the Washington Post. “The FISC is forced to rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the court,” U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said. “The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance, and in that respect the FISC is in the same position as any other court when it comes to enforcing [government] compliance with its orders.”

In one instance, the Post says, a Justice Department review in 2009 found violations of an order by the court that resulted in “over collection” of metadata records for U.S. phone calls. Two people familiar with the problem said it involved the collection of more fields of information from call records than had been approved by the court. The National Security Agency then reported to the court about its efforts to solve the problem.

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