Open government groups, including The Constitution Project, endorsed bipartisan legislation introduced June 11 by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) that would rein in the problem of “secret law” governing controversial surveillance programs.
The importance of this legislation is illustrated by recent reports about how the National Security Agency is monitoring telephone and internet communications. This bill would require the Attorney General to declassify significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions, and where declassification is not possible, to provide summaries. The provision would provide Americans knowledge of the scope and nature of legal authority the government is claiming for surveillance under the PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Last December, Sen. Merkley offered this bill as an amendment to the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. The amendment would have covered declassification of rulings used to authorize the controversial Verizon telephone call metadata on tens of millions of Americans and the PRISM program that gained direct access to the servers of nine leading U.S. internet companies. Sen. Merkley was quoted in a press release saying, “Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law. We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”
The bills’ other co-sponsors include Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), as well as Senators Dean Heller (R-NV), Mark Begich (D-AK), Al Franken (D-MN), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
The Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee called for release of important decisions of the FISA Court, redacted as necessary, in its Report on the FISA Amendment Act of 2008. The bill was also endorsed by the American Association of Law Libraries, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), CREDO Mobile and OpenTheGovernment.org.