By Elizabeth Holland, Public Policy Associate
A bipartisan group of eight senators has introduced legislation to require the Attorney General to declassify Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions governing controversial government surveillance programs. In light of the recent revelation of the National Security Agency’s secret data collection programs, the bill aims for greater transparency of the legal authority claimed for surveillance under the USA PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is a special U.S. federal court charged with overseeing requests by federal law enforcement agencies for surveillance warrants within the United States. FISC is a “secret court” and its rulings and orders are highly classified. The proposed legislation would unseal some classified opinions by the court that authorized requests for surveillance. If a FISC opinion cannot be declassified without undermining national security interests, the Attorney General can instead release a declassified summary of the opinion or provide a report to Congress describing the surveillance that would be implemented.
Sponsors of the bill include several key privacy advocates, including Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Senators Merkley and Lee introduced the same bill as an amendment to FISA’s five-year extension in December 2012, but were defeated 37-54. Had it passed, the amendment would have covered the declassification of rulings related to the provisions used to authorize the controversial Verizon telephone records collection and PRISM program.
AALL has long called for stronger oversight and transparency of government surveillance programs that monitor public communications, having opposed the extension of the FISA Amendments Act and changes to FISA under the USA PATRIOT Act, which permitted government surveillance in criminal investigations without a showing of probable cause.
As reported by The Nation and Albany Tribune, AALL strongly supports this important bill, which has also been endorsed the New York Times and numerous open government groups, including OpenTheGovernment.org, of which AALL is a founding member.