A group of eight senators from both parties have introduced a new bill that would require the attorney general to declassify as many of the rulings of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as possible as a way of bringing into the sunlight much of the law and opinion that guides the government’s surveillance efforts.

The bill comes in the aftermath of the National Security Agency leak scandal that revealed some pieces of the agency’s massive domestic surveillance program, including the collection of call data on millions of Verizon customers. The leaks also revealed the existence of a program called PRISM through which the NSA gets data on users from companies such as Google, Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft. Some of the key sponsors of the bill, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), have been vocal critics of the extent of government surveillance as well as the secrecy surrounding its interpretations of the Patriot Act.

Under the terms of the proposed law, the Justice Department would be required to declassify major FISC opinions as a way to give Americans a view into how the federal government is using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Patriot Act. If the attorney general determines that a specific ruling can’t be declassified without endangering national security, he can declassify a summary of it. If even that isn’t possible, then the AG would need to explain specifically why the opinion needs to be kept secret.

“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies.  We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”

The FISC has operated largely in the shadows for decades, handing down rulings on applications for warrants for electronic surveillance related to foreign surveillance. The court has been around for 35 years, but it’s only in the last few years that it has come under scrutiny as the scope and scale of domestic surveillance programs have expanded. The senators sponsoring the new measure say that Americans are entitled to know what goes on with the court’s rulings.

“Of course, ensuring Americans’ safety is one of our government’s most important responsibilities, but there is a careful balance between protecting Americans and honoring the Fourth Amendment,” Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said. “This legislation is a measured approach that will bring more transparency to the FISA court and respect the American people’s right to know how and when the government may be accessing their personal information.”

Merkley introduced a similar bill last year as an amendment to the FISA law, but it was not included.

Categories: Government, Privacy