In response to a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Department of Justice is preparing to release a trove of documents related to the government’s secret interpretation of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. The declassified documents will include previously secret opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The decision by the Justice Department to release the documents is the second legal victory in recent weeks for the EFF related to the National Security Agency’s intelligence collection programs. In August, the group won the release of a 2011 FISC opinion that revealed that the court ruled that some of the NSA’s collection programs were illegal and unconstitutional. The newest decision will result in the release of hundreds of pages of documents related to the way the government has been interpreting Section 215, which is the measure upon which some of the NSA’s surveillance programs are based.

In a status report released Wednesday regarding the EFF’s suit against the Department of Justice, attorneys for the government said that they will release the documents by Sept. 10.

“Orders and opinions of the FISC issued from January 1, 2004, to June 6, 2011, that contain a significant legal interpretation of the government’s authority or use of its authority under Section 215; and responsive ‘significant documents, procedures, or legal analyses incorporated into FISC opinions or orders and treated as binding by the Department of Justice or the National Security Agency’,” the status report says.

It’s not clear at this point exactly what the documents to be released will contain or how much of the information will be redacted. But the decision by the government to release the documents counts as a major milestone in the lawsuit against the Justice Department over the use of Section 215.

“While we applaud the government for finally releasing the opinions, it is not simply a case of magnanimity. The Justice Department is releasing this information because a court has ordered it to do so in response to EFF’s FOIA lawsuit, which was filed on the tenth anniversary of the enactment of the Patriot Act—nearly two years ago,” Trevor Timm of the EFF said.

“For most of the duration of the lawsuit, the government fought tooth and nail to keep every page of its interpretations secret, even once arguing it should not even be compelled to release the number of pages that their opinions consisted of. It was not until the start of the release of documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that the government’s position became untenable and the court ordered the government to begin the declassification review process.”

In another development related to the NSA’s intelligence-gathering capabilities and methods, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the lead author of the PATRIOT Act, submitted an amicus brief in support of the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against the NSA over the agency’s methods.

“I stand by the Patriot Act and support the specific targeting of terrorists by our government, but the proper balance has not been struck between civil rights and American security,” said Sensenbrenner. “A large, intrusive government-however benevolent it claims to be-is not immune from the simple truth that centralized power threatens liberty. Americans are increasingly wary that Washington is violating the privacy rights guaranteed to us by the Fourth Amendment.”

*Department of Justice image via  ryanjreilly‘s Flickr photostream, Creative Commons

Categories: Government, Privacy