(Washington, DC) – Today, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) announced today that he will co-sponsor legislation (S.1130) that would end the “secret law” governing controversial government surveillance programs. The legislation would require the Attorney General to declassify significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions, allowing Americans to know how broadly the government claims legal authority to spy on Americans under the PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Blumenthal supported the same legislation last year as an amendment to FISA. It was not adopted.
“Americans deserve to know how broadly the government claims legal authority for surveillance and collection of private communications and whether it accords with Constitutional rights,” Blumenthal said. “This bipartisan effort helps assure a robust, accountable legal regime consistent with the national security need for confidential activity.”
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is a special U.S. federal court tasked with authorizing requests for surveillance both inside and outside the United States. Because of the sensitive nature of these requests, the FISC is a “secret court.” The FISC rulings, orders, and other deliberations are highly classified. The Court’s rulings can include substantive interpretations of the law that could be quite different from a plain reading of the law passed by Congress, and such interpretations determine the extent of the government’s surveillance authority. Some information included in the Court’s orders and rulings is necessarily classified, related to the sources and methods of collection used by intelligence agencies. However, the substantive legal interpretations of what the FISC says the law means should be made public. In regard to the NSA’s phone data collection program, the FISC reportedly reviewed it every 90 days and found that it complied with the law.
This legislation would accommodate national security concerns. If the Attorney General determines that a Court opinion cannot be declassified without undermining national security interests, then the Attorney General can declassify a summary of the opinion. If the Attorney General determines that even a summary of an opinion would undermine national security, the Attorney General is required to provide a report to Congress describing the process to be implemented to declassify FISA Court opinions including an estimate of the number of opinions that will be declassified and the number that are expected to be withheld because of national security concerns.
“Recent revelations about the broad scope of NSA surveillance programs raise serious privacy concerns that need to be thoughtfully and carefully addressed,” Blumenthal said. “In addition to declassifying FISA court decisions, there should be hearings into the breadth and extent of what information was collected and whether it was within the scope of Constitutional rights and Congressional intent. The American public and Congress deserve to learn more details necessary to answer legitimate questions. This proposal strikes a balance – declassifying court rulings and opinions without undermining national security.”
Last December, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced this legislation as an amendment to the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. The amendment would have covered declassification of rulings related to the provisions used to authorize the controversial Verizon telephone records metadata collection and the PRISM program collecting information from tech companies, both of which were disclosed last week. Thirty-seven senators, including Blumenthal, supported the effort.