Spy Court Judge Resigns to Protest U.S. Surveillance

One of the judges on the special federal court set up to oversee secret government surveillance in national security cases has resigned. U.S. District Judge James Robertson quit in protest after learning of President Bush's decision to bypass the court in domestic spying cases after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The uproar over President Bush's secret spying on American citizens escalated today. One of the judges on the special federal court that's set up to oversee secret government surveillance in national security cases resigned in protest after he learned that the court had been bypassed. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

Judge James Robertson is one of 11 judges appointed by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist to serve on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA Court. Congress set up the court in 1978 and strengthened its powers after 9/11 to facilitate government electronic surveillance in national security cases and to provide a judicial mechanism that would serve as a check on executive authority. The president bypassed that court when he signed a secret order after 9/11 allowing the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens without going to that court.

The New York Times' revelation of the program last week has provoked a bipartisan uproar in Congress, promises of congressional investigations and a suggestion by the White House that it will not cooperate because of the classified nature the program. Now comes the disclosure that Judge Robertson resigned last Friday when he, like the rest of the public, learned about the NSA program in the papers.

Judge Robertson did not return calls today, but according to those who have spoken with him, he was concerned that he and other judges, who must approve the government's applications for national security warrants, had been, in the words of one source, `suckered.' Said one other source familiar with the judge's thinking, `The whole system is a sham if you have judges carefully going over government applications for national security warrants, and then it turns out there's a whole separate system that is bypassing the system Congress set up to assure the American people that there's some check on the government.'

It was unclear today whether any other member of the FISA Court is contemplating resigning. The chief judge, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, was briefed on the NSA spying program by the Bush administration in 2002, but she was forbidden to tell the other members of her court. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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