‘Secret law is a threat to democracy,’ Dems warn in letter to Obama

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Four House Democrats have teamed up with privacy advocates to protest a “secret law” that they say authorizes spying on some Americans' emails and online messages.

The lawmakers, organizations and former administration officials told the White House in a recent letter that the Obama administration should declassify “all current and future legal opinions” or legal interpretations that permit spying under a controversial executive order.

They also urged President Obama to ban “disproportionate or unnecessary” collection of people’s messages, Internet chats and other communications. 

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“Secret law is a threat to democracy,” Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter joined by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Access.

“We will continue to work to build support for further privacy protections for all users in surveillance activities conducted under [Executive Order] 12333,” they added, referring to a contested order from the Reagan administration amended by former President George W. Bush. The letter was also sent to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a small government watchdog panel.

The presidential order gives the National Security Agency (NSA) the power to collect Internet communications from people abroad, including the contents of their emails and online messages. Though it cannot target Americans’ communications, those messages can be picked up “incidentally” during the course of an oversees investigation, which critics say amounts to a violation of civil rights.

“For decades, the NSA and other intelligence agencies have been spying on millions of users without any meaningful limits,” said Access senior policy counsel Amie Stepanovich in a statement. “The president can and must stop these gross violations of our rights that continue without any oversight or accountability."

The order has come under new scrutiny lately and will be the subject of new analysis at the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  

NSA officials have defended the legal power, which they say is limited by “extensive and multi-layered” oversight and protects people in the U.S. and around the globe. 

Government leaker Edward Snowden has also been critical of the law. 

Before fleeing to Hong Kong and then Russia, Snowden had asked his supervisors whether executive orders superseded laws, a reference to the powers of Executive Order 12333, Snowden’s lawyer told Ars Technica.