The NSA, Verizon and FISA are in bed together and it's gross.
Between rampant domestic spying and the net neutrality debacle, the last year hasn’t exactly been stellar for the public image of the NSA, or Verizon. As nasty as things have gotten, apparently there’s still plenty of room for things to get uglier if you smoosh these two 800 pound gorillas of grossness together.
In June of last year, the Obama administration admitted that the NSA regularly worked with Verizon to obtain data, but it turns out their collusion doesn’t end there. According to disclosures obtained by VICE, FISA judges that sign off on NSA spying actually own significant amounts of Verizon stock.
“When the National Security Agency would like to take a look at all of the metadata of phone calls made by people using Verizon, a program revealed last summer by Edward Snowden, they must obtain approval from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (better known as the FISA Court), which typically grants such requests. VICE has obtained disclosures that reveal for the first time since this program was made public that FISA Court judges have not only owned Verizon stock in the last year, but that at least one of the judges to sign off on the NSA orders for bulk metadata collection is a proud shareholder of the company complying with these requests.
On May 28 last year, Judge James Zagel, a FISA Court member since 2008, purchased stock in Verizon. In June of this year, Zagel signed off on a government request to the FISA Court to renew the ongoing metadata collection program.
He’s not the only one. We filed a request to the courts for the personal finance statements for all of the FISA Court judges. About a month ago, federal judges began turning in their disclosures, which cover the calendar year of 2013. The disclosures show that FISA Court Judge Susan Wright purchased Verizon stock valued at $15,000 or less on October 22. FISA Court Judge Dennis Saylor has owned Verizon stock, and last year collected a dividend of less than $1,000. The precise amount and value of each investment is unclear—like many government ethics disclosures, including those for federal lawmakers, investments amounts are revealed within certain ranges of value.
The FISA Court continually rotates with respect to how it deals with requests from the government. In essence, each judge takes turns overseeing surveillance asks from the Feds. Judge Roger Vinson, the judge who signed off on the order disclosed by Snowden last year, requested an extension for filing his personal finance statement. While it’s not clear how the rotation schedule works, it’s certainly plausible Judge Saylor or Judge Wright will soon be asked to renew the next request by the NSA for metadata from telecom companies.
Do the investments constitute a conflict of interest? Federal judges are bound by an ethics law that requires them to recuse themselves from cases in which they hold a financial stake in the outcome, or in cases in which their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”