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Make a Difference: Open Doors on Intelligence Reform

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One of the great lessons from the Edward Snowden disclosures about domestic spying is that the American people have been inappropriately kept in the dark about government activities. And it seems that some in Congress still don’t get it.

Prior to today’s government shutdown, Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Vice-Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) announced that this week the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence plans to vote on legislation they sponsored to address some of the concerns about National Security Administration (NSA) activities.

Which concerns? What legislation? Unfortunately, we don’t really know since the hearing will be closed to the public and the actual bill that will be considered is, so far, being kept under wraps. (Scroll down to see what you can do about it!)

In an attempt to nudge the Committee in the right direction, the Project On Government Oversight has joined with other allies in urging that the Feinstein-Chambliss bill be made public. The letter underlines the public’s right to know how Congress intends to reform the laws governing domestic surveillance and other NSA activities.

There are several other reform proposals, but it is unclear whether these will be considered in the hearing. Some Members of Congress have introduced bills that address a range of concerns that we’ve also raised about the troubling aspects of secret law and the potential violations of constitutional rights exposed by Snowden’s whistleblowing disclosures. Bills that reflect some of our recommendations would:

  • Require public release of declassified versions of legal documents that substantively interpret the PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC or FISA Court) decisions.
    • S. 1551, the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
    • S. 1130, the End Secret Law Act, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah)
  • Require public reports to increase the public’s understanding of the scope of surveillance authorities, safeguards for privacy rights and civil liberties, and the historical development of the law since 2001.
    • S. 1551
    • S. 1215, the FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act of 2013, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah)
    • S. 1452, the Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013, Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
    • H.R. 3035, the Surveillance Order Reporting Act of 2013, Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.)
  • Clarify that communications providers such as Microsoft and Yahoo! can inform the public whenever they are required to hand over sensitive, personal information under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
    • S. 1551
    • S. 1452
    • H.R. 3035              
  • Provide attorneys to advocate on behalf of the individual rights of Americans before FISC.
    • S. 1551
    • S. 1467, the FISA Court Reform Act of 2013, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Minn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.)
  • Prohibit bulk collection of Americans’ records and shield Americans from warrantless searches of their communications.
    • S. 1551
  • Align the sunset dates for Sections 215 and 702 to June 1, 2015.
    • S. 1215

Importantly, Senators Wyden and Mark Udall, sponsors of the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act (S. 1551), both sit on the Intelligence Committee, and thus ought to be allowed to offer all or parts of their comprehensive bill as amendments to the Feinstein-Chambliss bill on Thursday. We certainly hope there will be no restrictions placed on consideration of theirs, and other amendments.

In keeping the consideration of that bill secret, the Committee seems to be falling prey to the false choice between security and liberty. POGO has long been concerned with this balance—an area finally getting more scrutiny post-Snowden. In particular, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), the government body tasked with ensuring that national security interests are balanced by respect for privacy and civil liberties, has become very engaged on NSA activities.

In August, POGO and other transparency advocates sent a public comment to PCLOB outlining our major concerns over the implementation of secret laws around surveillance. The comment includes a number of recommendations for changes to the laws, policies, and procedures that govern surveillance programs carried out pursuant to Section 215 or 702 orders.

Luckily, PCLOB is taking its responsibility to the public seriously. In spite of the government shutdown, PCLOB will continue to run on funding left over from Fiscal Year 2013 in order to hold a public hearing on October 4 to “address the activities and responsibilities of the executive and judicial branches of the federal government regarding the government’s counterterrorism surveillance programs.”

We think that if the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee were serious about the civil liberties and the privacy of the American people, they would take this hearing into account before marking up their NSA reform bill.

Lastly, while we don’t know if the Feinstein-Chambliss bill will contain anti-leaks provisions, this has been a real fight for free speech in the past. Senator Wyden has been steadfast in opposing these measures. It’s really time for others on this Committee to step up and protect the civil liberties and free speech rights of whistleblowers and the American people.

We think that in spite of the government shutdown, the Senate Intelligence Committee is still likely to vote on the NSA reform bill on Thursday. How can you help make a difference?

1. Please take a moment now to call the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Feinstein at 202-224-3841 and Ranking Member Chambliss at 202-224-3521 and urge that they::

  • Wait, and consider the findings of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB).
  • Make the Feinstein-Chambliss NSA reform bill and the hearing to vote on it public.
  • Support the Wyden-Udall legislation and other amendments to strengthen NSA activity transparency and accountability and restore balance between security and liberty.

2. If one of your Senators is a member of the Intelligence Committee, please urge him or her to vote in favor of the Wyden-Udall legislation and other amendments to strengthen NSA transparency and accountability and restore balance between security and liberty.

3. Finally, feel free to thank Senators Wyden and Udall for their leadership in strengthening NSA transparency and accountability and restoring balance between security and liberty!

National Security Agency Image by Wikipedia

By: Christine Anderson
Public Policy Fellow, POGO

Christine Anderson At the time of publication Christine Anderson was a public policy fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

By: Angela Canterbury
Director of Public Policy, POGO

angela canterbury Angela Canterbury is Director of Public Policy for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Surveillance, Information Access, Intelligence

Authors: Angela Canterbury, Christine Anderson

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