Judge Remembers Time on Top Secret Bench

Judge Royce Lamberth ran the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — under both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush. He recently delivered a speech to the American Library Association.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Espionage, intrigue, and librarians. Here in Washington this weekend, at the annual Convention of the American Library Association, delegates got a rare peek at the workings of a secret panel - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, which authorizes wiretaps on people in the United States. Judge Royce Lamberth ran the court from 1995 to 2002. He spoke to a room packed with librarians and NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: It was, sort of, like listening to your grandfather recount stories from his heyday - if your grandfather spent his life intercepting spies and terrorists.

Mr. ROYCE LAMBERTH (1995-2002 Presiding Judge, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance): I had to have my wife go upstairs because she didn't have a top secret clearance, so she couldn't be privy to any of this, but I kept my dog at my side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Judge Royce Lamberth bounced from one story to another, hitting most of the top terrorism and espionage cases from the last 10 years. He told the riveted audience, everyone remembers where they were on 9/11...

Mr. LAMBERTH: But I remember it very vividly because I was in the carpool lanes there by the Pentagon when the plane hit the Pentagon. My car was enveloped in smoke and I couldn't move.

SHAPIRO: The FBI had to come get him out. By the time they arrived, Lamberth had already approved five wiretaps over his cell phone. Lamberth said it's important to get wiretaps up immediately after an attack takes place.

Mr. LAMBERTH: Particularly in e-mails. As soon as an event happens, everybody's e-mailing everybody and you pick up the most productive take in e-mails if you do it immediately.

SHAPIRO: The judge said little about the National Security Agency's domestic spying program, which authorized domestic wiretaps without going through the FISA court. Lamberth said he has not seen a proposal for a better way of doing things than the FISA court.

Mr. LAMBERTH: I've seen a proposal for a worse way and that's what the president did with the NSA program. But I haven't seen a proposal for a better way.

SHAPIRO: Lamberth worked closely with Attorney General Janet Reno during the Clinton administration and Attorney General John Ashcroft during President Bush's first term. He said even though the two were very different politically, both took their relationship with the FISA court very seriously. Lamberth met with Ashcroft on the attorney general's first day in office.

Mr. LAMBERTH: Ashcroft's first day as attorney general was the first he learned that we had the biggest spy in the history of our country sitting there in the FBI about to be arrested.

SHAPIRO: That was Robert Hansen who sold secrets to Russia for 15 years.

Mr. LAMBERTH: It was quite a sobering start for a new attorney general.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAMBERTH: On his first day in office, needless to say.

SHAPIRO: Of course Osama Bin Laden made a cameo in the narrative. In 1998, simultaneous car bombs hit American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Mr. LAMBERTH: We were pretty sure it was bin Laden from the beginning. We had five targets that the FBI wanted to go up on that night. They reached my house at three o'clock in the morning. I signed the warrants for those applications.

SHAPIRO: One of those warrants was for an associate of Bin Laden.

Mr. LAMBERTH: Who was a car tire dealer in Texas - Arlington, Texas. He later went to trial in New York, was tried and convicted for orchestrating the bombings of our embassies in Africa.

SHAPIRO: Lamberth said judges on the FISA court have to trust that the Justice Department will tell the truth because there are no opposing lawyers arguing against the wiretap. Once he learned that an FBI agent had submitted false affidavits, he didn't know whether it was intentional or just sloppy work. The seven judges on the court met to decide what to do.

Mr. LAMBERTH: We just simply barred that agent from ever appearing in the court again. Now, he's one of their top counter-intelligence agents. Obviously, we ended his career when I issued that order.

SHAPIRO: Lamberth said then-FBI Director Louis Freeh begged him to rescind the order.

Mr. LAMBERTH: We never rescinded it. We enforced it. And we sent a message to the FBI - you got to tell the truth.

SHAPIRO: Lamberth praised the current FBI Director Robert Mueller. Judge Lamberth left the FISA court before Alberto Gonzales became attorney general so he said he can't comment on his effectiveness.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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