Feds ease gag order on spying

The Obama administration on Monday said it would allow Internet companies like Google and Microsoft to disclose more information about the surveillance requests they receive from the government.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a joint statement that the move will allow the companies to “disclose more information than ever before to their customers.

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“While this aggregate data was properly classified until today, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with other departments and agencies, has determined that the public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that required its classification,” Holder and Clapper said.

Companies will be able to publish more detailed information about national security letters that come from the FBI, and orders from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court — documents that had been highly classified.

Previously, businesses could disclose the number of national security letters they received but only in increments of 1,000. They could not disclose details about FISA orders.

The concession is a major win for tech companies, which had been battling the Obama administration in court since last summer for the right to make more details of the data requests public.

“This is a victory for transparency and a critical step toward reining in excessive government surveillance,” said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project.

Tech executives said the gag order on government queries has caused consumers to lose trust in them and warned the revelations about National Security Agency surveillance were damaging their business interests overseas.

Apple chief Tim Cook said the public would be more comfortable with the data gathering at the NSA and elsewhere, if they could hear the full details about the government’s requests.

Responding to those concerns Deputy Attorney General James Cole sent an email Monday to top lawyers at Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo giving them two options for detailing data requests to their customers.

Both options set specific ranges for companies to report the number of government requests they receive. If businesses want to disclose details about FISA orders and national security letters separately, they must do so in ranges of 1,000. If they want to combine they two, they can report them in ranges of 250.

“The declassification reflects the Executive Branch’s continuing commitment to making information about the Government’s intelligence activities publicly available where appropriate and is consistent with ensuring the protection of the national security of the United States,” Holder and Clapper said.

In a statement sent to The Hill, the five tech companies said they were “pleased” with the decision.

"We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of national security requests we receive,” the firms said. “While this is a very positive step, we'll continue to encourage Congress to take additional steps to address all of the reforms we believe are needed.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the administration’s announcement is “one step that will help provide greater transparency to the American people about the nature of our intelligence-gathering programs.
 
“However, additional steps are needed in order to ensure our nation’s intelligence collection programs include real protections for Americans’ civil liberties, robust oversight, and additional transparency,” Goodlatte said.
 
The NSA reform legislation that has garnered the most attention, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr.’s (R-Wis.) USA Freedom Act, called for Internet and telecom companies to be able to disclose the requests and for the government to make regular reports about its requests, among other measures. The Surveillance Transparency Act, introduced last year by Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) would impose similar rules.
 
On Monday, Franken urged for passage of their law “to make these changes permanent — and ensure that we’re getting greater government transparency, too,” he said.

President Obama called for the new disclosure rules as part of a series of initiatives to reform surveillance programs at the NSA.

“Companies must be allowed to report basic information about what they’re giving the government so that Americans can decide for themselves whether the NSA’s spying has gone too far," Obama said.