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Sen. Franken Pushes to Increase Transparency of Federal Surveillance Programs Bipartisan Group of Senators Introduce Bill to Make FISA Court Opinions Public

Tue, Jun 11th, 2013
Posted in All State of Minnesota

WASHINGTON, D.C. [06/11/13]—U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and a bipartisan group of Senators are pushing new legislation to bring greater transparency to federal surveillance programs. The bill would require the Attorney General to make public as much information as possible about the significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) legal opinions justifying the surveillance programs that have recently come to light.

“There needs to be a balance between Americans’ right to privacy and the government’s responsibility to keep Americans safe,” said Sen. Franken. “And ensuring that the court overseeing surveillance programs is as transparent as possible is a key step toward reaching that balance. This legislation will help make the process more open to the American people and to the people of Minnesota.”

Sen. Franken has long called for greater transparency and privacy protections for surveillance programs carried out under the PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In 2011 and 2012, he voted against reauthorizing these laws after efforts to increase transparency and oversight failed.

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 opinions are not made public. 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. There is certainly information included in the Court’s orders and rulings that 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 should be made public to the greatest extent possible.

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.

Sen. Franken cosponsored the legislation introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also cosponsored the legislation.

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