The government must answer a watchdog group's demands to release records about the nation's classified terrorist spying program, the chief judge of a secretive national security court has ruled.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which announced the order Friday, said it was the first time the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had responded to a request filed by the public.
In her 2-page order, dated Aug. 16, Presiding Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly called the ACLU's demand "an unprecedented request that warrants further briefing."
The ACLU last week asked the court to explain publicly the need to revamp laws that expand the government's authority to spy on foreigners. The request was prompted by Congress' approval earlier this month of legislation updating the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to allow the government to eavesdrop on terror suspects who are believed to be foreigners without first getting a court warrant.
The overhaul, according to House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, was the result of the court's ruling in January to bring the program under its authority — effectively banning eavesdropping on foreigners when their messages were routed through communications carriers based in the United States.
The ACLU wants that ruling to be released publicly — which would be an unusual move by the court that deals almost entirely with classified information.
It remains unclear whether the court records will ever be unsealed. Kollar-Kotelly ordered the Justice Department to respond to the ACLU's request by Aug. 31. If Justice officials want to seal parts of their response, the government must explain why to the court, which will have the final say.
In turn, the ACLU must answer the government's response by Sept. 14.
"While our motion may be unprecedented, we are responding to an unprecedented situation, where Congress has just granted the president sweeping new authorities," said ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer. "And yet nobody knows why or even whether the authority was needed at all."
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the government's attorneys are reviewing the order and declined further comment.