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A bipartisan group of eight senators introduced new legislation Tuesday that would require the Attorney General to reveal how the administration interprets the laws governing the massive surveillance programs conducted by the NSA. It would require the declassification of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's opinions, a press release from Sen. Jeff Merkley states, "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."
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Merkley said. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies. We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”
He's joined by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who along with Sen. Mark Udall (C-CO), has been trying for two years to have these secret interpretations aired. Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mark Begich (D-AK), Al Franken (D-MN) and Jon Tester (D-MT) have signed on.
This effort might actually help in the long stymied efforts to get these decisions declassified. The Electronic Frontiers Foundation has been involved in a byzantine effort under the Freedom of Information Act to see one particular opinion and has been ping-ponged between a district court, the FISC and the Justice Department, as all three play hot potato with the request. The ACLU has also just sued the government to compel the declassification of its interpretation of section 215, the so-called "business records" provision of the Patriot Act. A key, though perhaps reluctant ally for this effort is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In February, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), and four other senators, including Merkley, wrote the Fisa Court asking to "declassify opinions of this court that are assessed to contain a significant interpretation of the law." They continued: "We believe that decisions of this court contain important rulings of the law that, if declassified, would inform public debate over Fisa [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] that are subject to sunset in 2015 and 2017."
Feinstein is now on the record demanding this declassification. Her counterpart on Judiciary, Patrick Leahy, is now on board with this legislative effort. Which is bipartisan! Both sides want it! Red state senators and blue state senators and purple state senators all agree: The people have a right to know if the government is actually following the law.
Originally posted to Joan McCarter on Tue Jun 11, 2013 at 08:10 AM PDT.