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Democratic Senators Push for FISA Changes

A group of Democratic senators introduced two bills Thursday to change Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts — the same day that members of House and Senate Intelligence committees met with President Barack Obama at the White House to discuss Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act programs.

Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico unveiled one bill that would change the proceedings of the courts themselves and another that would change the way FISA court judges are appointed.

Key changes include the creation of a special advocate whot would be present within closed FISA deliberations to argue for outcomes that “minimize the scope of intrusion into [citizens’] privacy.” The senators argued that one of the most significant flaws in the current system is that because decisions are made in secret, there are very few actual ways to appeal them, even if the option is available.

“Because it exercises vast invisible power, the FISA Court must be appointed and operate in a way that inspires trust and credibility — now in danger because of recent revelations,” Blumenthal said. “Like any court, this one will make better decisions if it hears both sides. The special advocate can test, challenge and question the government when significant issues of law are raised, but this advocate for the Constitution will in no way impede the speed and security of the court’s approval of critical activities protecting our nation — since the lawyers will have security clearance and participate most commonly in the review court.”

The bill to change the courts would also require the attorney general to disclose “past and future significant legal interpretations of the FISA courts,” according to the senators.

The legislation on judge selection would expand the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to 13 judges from 11, and maintain the three-judge court of review. It also would make the chief judge of the FISC more involved in the selection process of fellow judges. Currently the chief justice of the Supreme Court has the sole power to select FISA judges. The three judges on the review court would require approval of five Supreme Court justices.