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POGO Supports Bill to Declassify Surveillance Court Opinions

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A new bipartisan bill from eight Senators seeks to expand transparency and accountability of secret surveillance programs conducted under the PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Angela Canterbury, Director of Public Policy for the Project On Government Oversight, says:

This bill would take an important step towards restoring proper checks and balances of the intelligence community. In the wake of recent revelations about the extent of the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency (NSA), the public deserves to know more about how these decisions are made. Only when the public is properly informed can there be an honest debate about the balance between the rights of citizens and our national security needs.

The bill, called the Ending Secret Law Act, is sponsored by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), accompanied by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mark Begich (D-Ark.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The bill would declassify “significant” opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), a secret body that meets to approve some surveillance requests under the PATRIOT and FISA acts. Of the government’s 1,789 applications in 2012 to conduct electronic surveillance, the FISC reported it “did not deny any application in whole or in part.”

The FISC opinions are of great interest to the public because, “[t]he Court’s rulings can include substantive interpretations of the law that could be quite different from a plain reading of the law passed by Congress, and such interpretations determine the extent of the government’s surveillance authority,” according to a release from the Senators sponsoring the bill. Under the new transparency requirements, the court would still be able to withhold full opinions on the grounds of national security by releasing summaries of the opinions.

“Unless there is a legitimate national security risk in the disclosure, the public has a right to know the legal rationale used by the government to justify actions that might threaten our constitutional rights—or otherwise cause us to reflect on the authority we’ve granted the government and how it’s being used,” Canterbury said. The Ending Secret Law Act is also supported by the American Association of Law Libraries, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Constitution Project, CREDO Mobile, and OpenTheGovernment.org.

Image by Flickr user jonathan mcintosh.

By: Andre Francisco
Online Producer, POGO

andre francisco Andre Francisco is the Online Producer for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Defense, Intelligence

Authors: Andre Francisco

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