WHILE GOVERNMENT CAN make a case for keeping some things confidential, no government entity should be so secret that it is virtually free of public oversight in the form of Congress. That has been the irresponsible nature of the operation of a 24-year-old secret court within the federal justice system.
Congress created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court back in 1978, primarily to give the Justice Department a top-secret avenue to gain wiretap authority for terrorism and espionage cases. In matters where national security is at risk, investigators would not want to let spies and terrorists know justice is on their trail.
But the secrecy shouldn’t be perpetual. Nor should the Surveillance Court be immune from congressional oversight. The Justice Department made that clear after confessing that the FBI had misled the court in more than 75 applications to obtain wiretap authority.
Congress proved its ability to conduct hearings without compromising intelligence over the past few weeks as it probed miscommunications and gaffes in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorism. Now, lawmakers should set up a regular check on the court to make sure neither judges, nor the Justice Department, are abusing its secrecy privileges.
That’s especially important in the terrorism fight, which tempts prosecutors to be ever more secret. The Surveillance Court issued a harsh rebuke of Attorney General John Ashcroft for trying to stretch the new latitude afforded his office by the USA Patriot Act. But that came to light only last month, when the Senate Judiciary Committee asked for a copy of the ruling. Ashcroft appealed to the Court of Review, which also meets in secret. It’s time to let some sun shine in.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Servic