Disclosure of FISA Opinions - Select Legal Issues

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In response to the disclosure of various National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and data-collection programs, a number of legislative changes to the government’s intelligence operations authority have been suggested. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) reviews government applications to conduct surveillance and engage in data collection for foreign intelligence purposes, and the FISA Court of Review reviews rulings of the FISC. Most FISA opinions are classified by the executive branch. Some have raised concerns that this practice permits the government to rely upon “secret law” to justify its activities, and have proposed requiring the public release of legal opinions and orders issued by the FISC and the FISA Court of Review. However, others might regard these proposals as raising separation of powers questions, including the scope of the executive branch’s control over national security information.

FISA opinions and orders, most of which seem to contain at least some sensitive facts pertaining to national security, involve the legal analysis of sensitive national security information.

Requiring the executive branch to release them implicates Article II of the Constitution because it compels the President to disclose potentially sensitive documents, and could override the President’s classification decisions. After briefly reviewing the FISC’s current procedures, this report will examine the Article II implications of requiring the executive branch to disclose FISA opinions. Report prepared by Jared Cole, Legislative Attorney, Congressional Research Service

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