House panel pressured on closed-door intelligence hearing

House panel pressured on closed-door intelligence hearing
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The House Judiciary Committee is coming under pressure to open up a closed-door hearing looking into the law that authorizes controversial intelligence programs.

The panel next week is scheduled to meet in a classified session to examine the 2008 update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which is at the core of many programs that critics say violate Americans’ civil liberties.  

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On Wednesday, a group of 25 civil liberties organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology — asked the committee’s leaders to change course.

Keeping the hearing closed “continues the excessive secrecy that has contributed to the surveillance abuses we have seen in recent years and to their adverse effects upon both our civil liberties and economic growth,” the organizations wrote.

Congressional Intelligence, Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees will frequently split a hearing in two, the groups noted, so that half is open to the public and the other half is classified.

“This judicious use of closed sessions meets the dual purposes of providing robust oversight and protecting national security,” they wrote.

A committee aide told The Hill that the hearing is being classified "so that members can do their job to conduct meaningful oversight over the FISA Amendments Act so that they can make educated decisions based on all the facts about how to proceed."

Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act is the next battle for privacy advocates after they succeeded in forcing some reforms to the National Security Agency (NSA) programs last summer. The law allows the U.S. government to warrantlessly collect data about Americans’ communications and authorizes the NSA’s controversial PRISM and Upstream collection programs.

The law does not come up for renewal until the end of 2017, but critics have already begun to lay the groundwork for what will surely be an uphill climb. Renewed focus on international terrorism has mounted in recent months, spurring national security hawks to oppose cuts to intelligence programs. 

Updated at 11:26 a.m.