Senators push bill to declassify secret FISA surveillance rulings

Eight senators introduced legislation on Tuesday that would require the attorney general to declassify significant opinions made by courts operating under the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). [WATCH VIDEO]

If the bipartisan bill were adopted, the government would be required to reveal the kinds of National Security Agency surveillance activities that came to light last week.

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“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” said Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyOvernight Energy: Dems take on Trump's chemical safety pick Dem senator slams Trump for dedicating golf trophy to hurricane victims Dem senator compares Trump to Marie Antoinette MORE (D-Ore.), who is spearheading the effort with Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Senate confirms No. 2 spot at HHS, days after Price resigns Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax CEO faces outraged lawmakers | Dem presses voting machine makers on cyber defense | Yahoo says 3 billion accounts affected by 2013 breach MORE (D-Ore.).

The legislation has a powerful backer in Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyOvernight Regulation: Massachusetts AG sues Equifax | Trump weighs easing rules on gun exports | EPA nominee to fight worker safety rule in court Trump to ease rules on gun exports: report Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions MORE (D-Vt.), and Sens. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerNevada senators urge airlines to enact new policies after Las Vegas shooting Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada GOP establishment doubts Bannon’s primary powers MORE (R-Nev.), Mark BegichMark Peter BegichPerez creates advisory team for DNC transition The future of the Arctic 2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map MORE (D-Alaska), Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenThe Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report John Oliver rips AT&T-Time Warner merger MORE (D-Minn.), Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Overnight Finance: White House requests B for disaster relief | Ex-Equifax chief grilled over stock sales | House panel approves B for border wall | Tax plan puts swing-state Republicans in tough spot Senators grill ex-Equifax CEO over stock sales MORE (D-Mont.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong How the effort to replace ObamaCare failed Overnight Regulation: Trump temporarily lifts Jones Act for Puerto Rico | Bill would exempt some banks from Dodd-Frank | Senators unveil driverless car bill MORE (R-Utah) have also signed on as co-sponsors.

The pairing of prominent liberals such as Franken and Leahy with Lee, a Tea Party favorite, highlights how worries about the NSA programs have blurred partisan lines.

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteDems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada Stale, misguided, divisive: minimum wage can't win elections Trump voter fraud commission sets first meeting outside DC MORE (R-N.H.) expressed support for the FISA measure, as long as it did not endanger current or future intelligence operations.

“I think broader engagement with [lawmakers] and congressional oversight” is necessary, Ayotte said.

“I would support that, [but] only if we are not tipping off the bad guys,” Ayotte added. “That is the balance here.”

The FISA court is the main legal body responsible for authorizing intelligence operations against U.S. citizens on American soil. Currently, FISA opinions are classified.

While the legislation has bipartisan backing, it received a chilly reception from Democratic leaders in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Republicans are headed for a disappointing end to their year in power Obama's HHS secretary could testify in Menendez trial MORE (D-Nev.) was less than enthusiastic about the Merkley-Wyden proposal, saying only that leadership would be “happy to take a look” at it.

“I’m happy, any legislation that people have to offer, I’ll take a look at it and ... we’ll see,” Reid said.

The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat was more blunt.

“I encourage this, though I think it is going to be ill-fated,” Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGun proposal picks up GOP support Durbin: I had 'nothing to do' with Curbelo snub Republicans jockey for position on immigration MORE (D-Ill.) said.

“I just don’t see a freight train coming down the track,” in terms of getting the White House and Congress behind the Merkley-Wyden bill, Durbin said.

Even if a bill got through the House and Senate, it is unlikely that President Obama would accept it, Durbin said.

The Merkley-Wyden bill was offered in response to the classified information on the two domestic surveillance programs that were leaked by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old government contractor.

Snowden had been working for three months as a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton when he leaked details of the NSA programs to the media.

On Tuesday, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew Boehner‘Lone wolf’ characterization of mass murderers is the epitome of white privilege Pelosi urges Ryan to create select committee on gun violence Ex-congressman Michael Grimm formally announces bid for old seat MORE (R-Ohio) called Snowden a “traitor” and said the leaks had put American lives “at risk.”

But Lee said the revelations about the NSA programs that were published last week call for a “serious debate” about the intelligence community’s monitoring of American citizens.

“There’s been a pretty public example why people ought to be concerned about these laws that are really broad and give the government all kinds of power,” Lee said.

One of the programs Snowden revealed collects cellphone data from Verizon customers to track terror threats, while a second program, PRISM, pulls data from tech companies on foreign Internet users.

Obama and the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees have defended the programs as critical to national security and respectful of civil liberties.

But Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Clip shows Larry David and Bernie Sanders reacting after discovering they're related For now, Trump dossier creates more questions than answers MORE (I-Vt.) pushed back against that argument, claiming the White House had failed to protect Americans’ rights.

“Technology has changed the world very substantially [and] ... invaded people’s privacy,” Sanders said. “And government has not responded accordingly.”

“I do not believe the American people want to have every phone call they make ... every website they visit tracked by United States government, or the private sector,” Sanders said.

The White House said Congress had been briefed on the NSA operations, but many lawmakers say they were unaware of the programs and are demanding more information.

Senate Intelligence Committee member Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGun proposal picks up GOP support Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns Agricultural trade demands investment in MAP and FMD MORE (R-Maine) said the first time she had heard of either NSA program is “when it broke in the news.”

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper defended the programs shortly after the leaks, saying a FISA court deemed the operations legal.

That said, “I think having the [FISA] court provide some carefully-worded [program] summaries might be helpful,” Collins said.

Those kinds of summaries, provided to lawmakers outside the Armed Services and Intelligence panels, could be a possible alternative to the Merkley-Wyden bill, according to Durbin. 

“I think that is a good option,” he added.

But Senate Intelligence Committee chief Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGun proposal picks up GOP support Gingrich: Banning rapid fire gun modification is ‘common sense’ House bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance MORE (D-Calif.) disagreed, saying the FISA opinions should remain under wraps.

When asked if she agreed with the Merkley-Wyden bill, Feinstein replied: “No, because it was all classified. It was a highly classified program, and we respect that. We have to respect that.”

Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingSenate confirms No. 2 spot at HHS, days after Price resigns Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy Mattis: Staying in Iran deal is of US national security interest MORE (I-Maine) said he was also against the declassification of the FISA opinions, but agreed with Durbin’s call for summaries of FISA opinions to be made available to members of the intelligence panel.

“I do not think they should be declassified, but I do think they should be made available to the [Intelligence] committee on a very timely basis,” King said.

He declined to comment on whether that information should be provided to lawmakers outside the defense and Intelligence panels.

Jeremy Herb contributed to this report. 

— Published at 10:53 a.m. and updated at 8 p.m.