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Ex-FISA Court Judge Reflects: After 9/11, 'Bloodcurdling' Briefings

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Ex-FISA Court Judge Reflects: After 9/11, 'Bloodcurdling' Briefings


Ex-FISA Court Judge Reflects: After 9/11, 'Bloodcurdling' Briefings

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Over his 25 years as a federal judge, Royce Lamberth has touched some of the biggest issues in the country. He led the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court after the 9/11 attacks. He reviewed petitions from detainees at the Guantanamo prison, and he gave a boost to Native Americans suing the federal government. Next week, Judge Lamberth will retire as the chief of the federal district court in Washington, D.C.

NPR's Carrie Johnson sat down with him to reflect on his legacy.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Royce Lamberth knows one of the secrets to surviving in Washington.


JOHNSON: His 12-year-old cocker spaniel shakes her dog tags and brushes his ankles when she sees her master approach.

JUDGE ROYCE LAMBERTH: Harry Truman said: If you need a friend in Washington, get a dog. So I took it to heart.

JOHNSON: Lamberth's infuriated both Republican and Democratic administrations. He threw the Obama White House into uproar almost three years ago when he blocked its move to expand stem cell research. And he recently upset the media by approving a search warrant for email and phone records of a Fox News reporter in a leak case.

The judge who wears cowboy boots to stuffy legal events doesn't really have a problem with that.

In fact, earlier in your career, people more or less called you a maverick. Do you wear that proudly?

LAMBERTH: Absolutely. Anybody from Texas would be proud to be called a maverick.

JOHNSON: Lamberth, who led the Secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 1995 to 2002, has no regrets when he talks about that court's business. The court's in the news again for blessing nearly every Justice Department surveillance request, even for dragnet phone monitoring of American citizens.

LAMBERTH: What I found that bothered me was the notion that the court was a rubberstamp, because we're approving so much. We're approving it because it should be approved, because it's valid, because what the government is doing here is the kinds of things we should be doing.

JOHNSON: Lamberth says he can't forget his experience running that court in the fall of 2001.

LAMBERTH: And in the days following 9/11, I went to some of the most bloodcurdling meetings and briefings in my lifetime to hear some of the things that were being told might be the next follow-up.

JOHNSON: Lamberth says another attack in some form or other is inevitable. So he says the U.S. can't stand down when it comes to security.

Outside the national security realm, the judge's most famous case is one that lasted for more than a decade. Lamberth repeatedly blasted the Interior Department for mismanaging trust funds that belonged to Native Americans, before the appeals court yanked him from the case for calling the department a dinosaur.

LAMBERTH: It was clear to me that the Indians had been wronged by the government. And it was clear to me that the ultimate outcome - where the government had to agree to pay $3.4 billion to the Indians - showed that I was on the right track, and I was on the right path all along.

JOHNSON: In a fitting coda, one of the judge's former law clerks - then-Justice Department official Tom Perrelli - helped engineer the multi-billion dollar settlement.

Lamberth will turn over his gavel later this month, the same day he turns 70 years old. He's not saying good-bye to the business of judging, though. He has plans to sit as a visiting judge in his home town, San Antonio, early next year.

LAMBERTH: I've had the opportunity to work on everything under the sun, terrorist cases, spy cases - you know, just a great variety of really interesting things to do. And I'm still doing them.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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