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Fisa judge: Snowden's NSA disclosures triggered important spying debate

The court that oversees US surveillance has ordered the government to review for declassification a set of secret rulings about the National Security Agency's bulk trawls of Americans' phone records, acknowledging that disclosures by the whistleblower Edward Snowden had triggered an important public debate.

The Fisa court ordered the Justice Department to identify the court's own rulings after May 2011 that concern a section of the Patriot Act used by the NSA to justify its mass database of American phone data. The ruling was a significant step towards their publication.

It is the second time in a week that a US court has ordered the disclosure of secret intelligence rulings. On Tuesday, a federal court in New York compelled the government to declassify numerous documents that revealed substantial tension between federal authorities and the surveillance court over the years.

On Thursday, James Clapper, pictured, the director of national intelligence, conceded that the NSA is likely to lose at least some of its broad powers to collect data on Americans.

This has the appearance of progress about it. The functionality of the US constitution rest on a balance of powers among the three legs of the stool. The way the original FISA law was constructed and especially some of the subsequent amendments to it have tended to restrict the power of the courts to actively assert their role in maintaining the constitutional restraints on intelligence gathering. We may be seeing some adjustment to that balance underway. I would place more confidence in this particular development than I would in the activities of Obama's whitewash committee.

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