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 MerkleyThe border deal: What made it in, what got left out Lawmakers introduce bill to fund government, prevent shutdown Dems wary of killing off filibuster MORE (D-Ore.), who is spearheading the effort with Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDem lawmaker: 'Trump's presidency is the real national emergency' Dems introduce bill to take gender-specific terms out of tax code to make it LGBT-inclusive 8 surprising times our intel community spied on US citizens MORE (D-Ore.).

The legislation has a powerful backer in Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph Leahy‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire How the border deal came together Winners and losers in the border security deal MORE (D-Vt.), and Sens. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary Oregon Dem top recipient of 2018 marijuana industry money, study finds MORE (R-Nev.), Mark BegichMark Peter BegichLobbying world Dem governors on 2020: Opposing Trump not enough Dem Begich concedes Alaska governor race to Republican Dunleavy MORE (D-Alaska), Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenVirginia scandals pit Democrats against themselves and their message The Hill's Morning Report — Will Ralph Northam survive? Identity politics and the race for the Democratic nomination MORE (D-Minn.), Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterHow the border deal came together GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration Border talks stall as another shutdown looms MORE (D-Mont.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Push for paid family leave heats up ahead of 2020 New act can help us grapple with portion of exploding national debt 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 AyotteUS, allies must stand in united opposition to Iran’s bad behavior American military superiority will fade without bold national action Five possible successors to Mattis 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 Mason ReidConstitutional conservatives need to oppose the national emergency Klobuchar: 'I don't remember' conversation with Reid over alleged staff mistreatment Dems wary of killing off filibuster 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 DurbinTrump praises law enforcement response to shooting at Illinois business Five dead in shooting at manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois ‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire 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 BoehnerBill Clinton jokes no one would skip Dingell's funeral: 'Only time' we could get the last word Left flexes muscle in immigration talks Former Ryan aide moves to K street 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) SandersNewsom endorses Kamala Harris for president Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration Poll: Sanders, Biden seen as most popular second choices in Dem primary 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 CollinsBusiness, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week 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 FeinsteinFeinstein says she thinks Biden will run after meeting with him Trump judicial nominee Neomi Rao seeks to clarify past remarks on date rape Bottom Line 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 KingDrama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry Warner, Burr split on committee findings on collusion Overnight Defense: Top general wasn't consulted on Syria withdrawal | Senate passes bill breaking with Trump on Syria | What to watch for in State of the Union | US, South Korea reach deal on troop costs 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.