Rep. Steve Israel said Sunday there are similar "strains" between the United States' secret wiretapping courts and the role judges and legislators played during the rise of Nazi Germany.
His comments came during an event at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, in Glen Cove, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the violent pogroms against Jewish communities in Germany, Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia.-- That "Night of Broken Glass" was a crucial turning point in the Nazis' anti-Jewish campaign, marking the beginning of the Holocaust.
The Huntington Democrat went through a history of early legislation and court decisions that targeted Jews, including one case in which a German judge took the "testimony" of a dog to justify ordering the execution of a Jew.
Asked by a member of the audience how a democracy balances rights of citizens with foreign threats, Israel used the example of secret surveillance courts, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), that oversee National Security Agency programs as how to balance those two things.
"The issue isn't the NSA program, it's that we have secret courts," said Israel, who is Jewish. "I think we should reform the FISA court so it's more transparent. And it's based on this -- it's based on my read of history and the Holocaust. That when you allow judges and courts wide latitude, you're going to get yourself into this where you accept the testimony of a dog to condemn someone to death."
Israel said during his talk that when he brings up secret Nazi courts that condemned thousands to die, he is asked if he's making a comparison to the current day. "There's no comparison" to the Holocaust, he said. "But there are strains. We have FISA courts."
NSA surveillance programs have prevented "dozens" of attacks on the United States, Israel said. But he criticized the fact that all 11 FISA Court judges are appointed by one person, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. He also said that the courts are building up their own body of secret case law.
"There have been historic tensions between national security and civil liberties," Israel said in an interview after his speech.
Israel, elected in 2001, introduced a bill in September to change the FISA courts.
Steven Markowitz, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center, said Israel "presented a whole new perspective" on the Holocaust, and brought up "very significant issues. What we keep saying at the Holocaust Center is that we have to learn from the past."
Herb Cooper, who was 11 in Vienna in 1938, still remembers he was eager to sing at his synagogue for the first time in his black choir robe.
"When I arrived, the synagogue was in flames," said Cooper, who lives in Floral Park, Queens. "It was like a shock."
He said he was lucky to escape in May 1939, reaching the United States, where he had an uncle.