Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judges own stock in Verizon

August 6, 2014

• Revelation calls into question secretive court’s impartiality

By Jim Hagerty
Staff Writer

Three Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judges own stock in Verizon, according to disclosures centered on the wireless carrier’s role in turning over millions of phone records to the National Security Agency (NSA).

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) is the court that approved the surveillance and the records from Verizon. The revelation, originally reported by ViceNews, calls question to the court’s impartiality.

Verizon’s part was brought to light last summer, after Edward Snowden leaked documents detailing massive global surveillance programs, many of which were headed by the NSA. While Verizon admitted last year to turning over the requested metadata, it wasn’t until this year that the questionable stock ownership came to light. The disclosures reveal Judge James Zagel purchased Verizon stock before he signed off on the NSA’s massive bulk data order.

The disclosure revealed more. Judges Dennis Saylor and Susan Wright also bought stock in Verizon. And, they weren’t small trades, either. Wright purchased shares worth around $15,000, while Saylor even collected dividends.

Under federal law, federal judges are required to reveal certain investments. Judges are also required to recuse themselves in cases in which they have financial stake. So far, Saylor, Wright and Zagel have not done so. In fact, they are expected to approve program extensions that would benefit Verizon and its stockholders. The problem is, which judge will sign off on which extension isn’t known and may be withheld until another disclosure is released long after the ink is dry.

Lee Fang, of Republic Report, reported that a number of FISA judges have owned telecom stock in the past. However, this has been the first time since the Snowden leaks that officials have purchased shares in the single company set to benefit from the programs the court controls. A continuation of the program in any capacity could also be in direct contrast to the president’s plan to end the NSA phone surveillance program.

President Barack Obama, in March, vowed to end the program, making some mobile phone records off limits to the NSA. It wasn’t until U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, introduced a bill last week that an end to telecom-assisted surveillance has been in sight.

A House bill that would have curbed government surveillance of personal phone records was narrowly defeated in June. The bill had no support from the White House, as the bill would have completely gutted the NSA’s program, taking phone record surveillance away from the agency. That, the White House said, would have severely impeded counter-terrorism efforts.

Called the USA Freedom Act, the bill doesn’t eliminate government data collecting; it prohibits agencies from gathering all its information from a single carrier or from broad geographic areas.

If enacted, this bill would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA Patriot Act 13 years ago,” Leahy said on the Senate floor last week.

The bill would also end collection of business phone records authorized by the Patriot Act. Congress is currently on a five-week break.

From the Aug. 6-12, 2014, issue

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