Senator Blumenthal calls for intelligence oversight in major policy address

In a major policy speech today at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Senator Blumenthal underscored the urgent need for new accountability for the intelligence community, as indicated by the recent disturbing allegations of abuse of power by the CIA as well as continuing revelations about NSA activity. Blumenthal continued to advocate for legislation he has introduced to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review-- collectively, the FISA courts.

“In the context of this situation and others that have come to light over the past year, we must ask how much unchecked and unmonitored intelligence activity can be consistent with the rule of law – the respect for legal constraints that is safeguarded in this country by our robust system of judicial review.  These questions cannot be long delayed, because of their urgency and immediacy in involving critical civil rights and liberties, and because key statutes must be reauthorized by June 1, 2015,” Blumenthal stated.

“As new technologies develop, the question as to what the government can access and what is off limits is reframed. In the age of the internet, millions of people, every second, in every part of the world, communicate with each other in every conceivable … through the text messages, social media postings, and video chats that were unimagined in 1978. Keeping pace with the explosion in electronic communication has been a growth in the government’s ability to monitor what we do: to engage in staggeringly speedy and comprehensive searches of our associational activity, beyond the scope of anything the drafters of FISA, let alone the drafters of the Constitution, would have imagined.”

The first bill – the FISA Court Reform Act of 2013 – would create a Special Advocate with the power to argue in the FISA courts on behalf of the right to privacy and other individual rights of the American people. The second bill – the FISA Judge Selection Reform Act of 2013 – would reform how judges are appointed to the FISA courts to ensure they are geographically and ideologically diverse and better reflect the full diversity of perspectives on questions of national security, privacy, and liberty.

“Last summer, in one of his first public comments on the metadata program revealed by Edward Snowden, President Obama said he believed that the FISA Court would benefit from the addition of a civil liberties advocate. Equally important is assurance that the office we establish is in a position to make a real difference.  The new law must enact real reform, rather than just a cosmetic tweak to the current process.   As I see it, the Special Advocate must, for example, be able to proactively request participation in FISA Court proceedings, and to engage the FISA Court of Review appellate process for significant legal decisions.

Giving this power to the Advocate herself, rather than leaving it entirely in the hands of the Court, is important. We have heard from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that at least some judges of the FISA Court believe they already have the power to call upon third parties for alternative views. But, they have never exercised that power.  Rather than relying on judges to seek out other arguments, the structure must require those arguments be heard.

This is why I believe the Special Advocate should be a permanent position, with an established office and a staff – not an occasional, on-call observer that the Court hears only when it chooses.  My proposal would grant the Advocate many of the powers of any counsel – assert factual and legal arguments, present them to the court, and take cases through the appellate process.” 

Click here to read the Senator’s speech in its entirety