The American government spying on Americans; spying on our allies; turning over American communications to other nations; breaking down privacy safeguards on the Internet and in our Constitution—all of these things now have our attention because of the Edward Snowden whistleblower disclosures. Clearly the American people, most Members of Congress, and even the President have been kept in the dark far too long about National Security Agency (NSA) activities that threaten some of our fundamental rights and relationships.
These disclosures have raised a host of questions, from the technical issues of NSA legal authorities and specific oversight mechanisms to the broader issues of how to balance national security with liberty.
After years of largely ignoring these issues, members of Congress have held more than 10 hearings and introduced dozens of bills in response to the revelations about NSA activities. But most legislative proposals have been piecemeal, and none of the bills have had a comprehensive approach with strong bipartisan support—until now.
Yesterday, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), one of the original authors of the USA PATRIOT Act, announced the introduction of a bill with several reforms to re-balance the checks on NSA spying. The USA FREEDOM Act, supported by an impressive coalition of bipartisan lawmakers (102 cosponsors and counting), combines several other legislative proposals in order to end bulk collection of domestic records, curb secret law, increase transparency, improve oversight and accountability, and provide safeguards for civil liberties and other rights.
The Project On Government Oversight doesn’t have a position on every provision in the bill, and the bill doesn’t contain every reform we seek (whistleblower protections for the intelligence community, for example). However, we strongly support this bill as a vehicle for reform that incorporates many of the recommendations we have made since the Edward Snowden revelations. In particular, POGO strongly supports the reforms in the bill that would:
- Establish public advocates to promote the privacy interests and civil liberties of the American people in classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court proceedings.
- Create a process for the public release of FISA Court opinions containing significant legal interpretations.
- Allow private companies to disclose basic information about their participation in NSA surveillance programs.
- Require the government to provide new public reporting on the scope of FISA activities.
- Require Inspector General reports on surveillance authorities and activities.
- Limit the types of warrantless orders, or National Security Letters (NSL), that can be sought, and specify the legal authority to seek them.
- Allow for meaningful judicial review of any non-disclosure order issued to the recipient of an NSL.
- Synchronize and add sunset dates for the most relevant provisions of two laws, the FISA Amendments Act and the USA PATRIOT Act, so that Congress can debate similar issues together.