The PJ Tatler

Unlikely Bedfellows Join Together in Senate to End 'Secret Law' of Surveillance Programs

There aren’t many initiatives in the Senate that would bring Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) together, but that’s just what the NSA surveillance scandal has done.

Lee and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who last week charged the Obama administration with “clearly” not following the law, today introduced a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Franken to end to the “secret law” governing controversial government surveillance programs.

This bill would require the attorney general to declassify significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions, allowing Americans to know how broad of a legal authority the government is claiming to spy on Americans under the PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, according to Merkley’s office.

“There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies,” Merkley said. “We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”

“This bipartisan amendment establishes a cautious and reasonable process for declassification consistent with the rule of law,” Lee said. “It will help ensure that the government makes sensitive decisions related to surveillance by applying legal standards that are known to the public. Particularly where our civil liberties are at stake, we must demand no less of our government.”

“Of course, ensuring Americans’ safety is one of our government’s most important responsibilities, but there is a careful balance between protecting Americans and honoring the Fourth Amendment,” Heller said. “This legislation is a measured approach that will bring more transparency to the FISA court and respect the American people’s right to know how and when the government may be accessing their personal information.”

It is impossible for the American people to have an informed public debate about laws that are interpreted, enforced, and adjudicated in complete secrecy,” Wyden said. “When talking about the laws governing Intelligence operations, the process has little to no transparency. Declassifying FISA Court opinions in a form that does not put sources and methods at risk will give the American people insight into what government officials believe the law allows them to do.”

Merkley offered the bill last Congress as an amendment to FISA reauthorization. It got 37 votes.

That amendment would have covered declassification of rulings related to the provisions used to authorize the controversial Verizon telephone records metadata collection and the PRISM program collecting information from tech companies, both of which were disclosed last week, Merkley’s office said.