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 Merkley (D-Ore.), who is spearheading the effort with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The legislation has a powerful backer in Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Mike Lee (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 Ayotte (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 Reid (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 Durbin (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 Boehner (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 Sanders (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 Collins (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 Feinstein (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 King (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.