The federal government must determine what it can release publicly about the justification it gave to search company Yahoo in 2008 for the government's broad wiretapping efforts, a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) ruled on Monday (PDF).

Judge Reggie B. Walton gave the government until July 29 to report back on when the court should expect disclosures to be made regarding the legal basis for programs like PRISM, which many scholars believe to be unconstitutional and unprecedented in its reach.

The government's justification for even having a system that vacuums up virtually all of the electronic communications data on the planet has not been available for public scrutiny before, despite efforts by civil liberties groups to force it out into the open.

It's not yet clear how much of the explanation will be released. In his ruling, Walton ordered a "declassification review" of its own opinion from April 25, 2008, along with the legal briefs submitted to the court by Yahoo and the government. "After such review, the Court anticipates publishing that Memorandum Opinion in a form that redacts any properly classified information," he concluded.

Given the court's penchant for secrecy, that could be a little bit of information or a lot. The 11-judge panel rarely refuses government surveillance requests and even once issued a ruling that forced Verizon, the nation's largest mobile phone provider, to hand over metadata generated by all its users.

The court was able to do that because of the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which updated the court's authority and dramatically expanded its power as part of a package of legislation initially opposed by then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), who ultimately voted in favor and called it a "compromise."

Once Obama took the presidency, his administration expanded the Bush administration's defense of the wiretapping programs even further, citing the Patriot Act as perpetual cover from lawsuits.


["Stock photo: A spy peers out from a laptop computer," via Shutterstock.]

(H/T: Washington Post)