President Obama, still facing widespread criticism over revelations about NSA phone gathering and internet mining, again defended the NSA programs yesterday. “I came into office committed to protecting the American people but also committed to our values and our ideals and one of our highest ideals is civil liberties and privacy,” Obama said. “I am confident that at this point we have struck the appropriate balance.”

If that is so, then surely Obama would have no reason to support the status quo, in which Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions authorizing these programs continue to remain secret — leaving the public and the press with no meaningful way of evaluating whether the legal rationale underlying that “balance” is indeed “appropriate.”

As best as anyone can determine, Obama could push for the declassification of key FISA court opinions if he wanted to. And in a letter to be sent to the President today, Senator Jeff Merkley calls on him to do just that.

Merkley notes that the NSA programs are made possible by the legal interpretation of key sections of the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act offered by both the administration and the FISA court — but that these interpretations remain secret, making meaningful public debate about the programs impossible. Merkley continues:

Because of the highly classified nature of opinions issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), Members of Congress cannot publicly discuss, let alone debate, the way that the executive and judicial branches are interpreting the law. And without disclosing and debating the interpretation of the law, it is a fruitless exercise to debate whether and how to change laws which we are periodically asked to reauthorize.

In order to support a public discussion about these issues, I ask that you declassify opinions issued by the FISC and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review that contain significant construction or interpretation of law. If declassifying the full opinions would compromise sensitive sources and methods used by our intelligence community, then I urge you to release public summaries of legal interpretations contained in these opinions. While debating the laws that govern our intelligence gathering programs has never been easy, we must be able to publicly discuss what the law means in order to protect and promote our most cherished values.

Calling for these opinions, or summaries of them, to be released doesn’t even constitute calling for a change or end to the NSA programs themselves. The request is simply for more transparency around the legal rationale for them.

The public apparently supports such transparency. A new Post poll finds that 65 percent of Americans want Congress to hold public hearings on the NSA programs. This is supported by large majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents, and large majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives. This, even though the poll also finds that a solid majority supports the programs themselves. These things are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, one could argue that support for more public disclosure, at a minimum, is the truly “balanced” view here.

Now, perhaps there are procedural or process reasons that explain why declassification is not as easy for the President himself to pursue as civil libertarians think it is. But as the New York Times editorial board notes this morning, even if this is true, there is no reason why Obama can’t voice support for the bill being pushed by a number of Senators that would compel the declassification of these opinions, or summaries of them.

To his credit, Obama has said that concerns about the secrecy shrouding these programs are “legitimate,” and has promised to push for more public disclosure. Voicing support for the declassification and release of key FISA opinions would be a good place to start, and would help bring about the “debate” Obama says he wants. Alternatively, if there is some reason why this is not a good idea, the President should tell us what it is.

* A HUGE BOOST FOR IMMIGRATION REFORM: The Congressional Budget Office found that immigration reform would cut the deficit by $200 billion over the next decade, even as it boosts federal spending to make health care and welfare benefits available to millions of new recipients. One key right wing attack on reform has been that it will dole out too much in government benefits to the “takers”; this attack is expected to be central to efforts to derail the bill in the House, where things still stand to get very ugly. This undercuts that argument and dramatically shifts the ground in reform’s favor.

* IMMIGRATION REFORM CUTS DEFICIT OVER LONG TERM, TOO: Another key nugget about the CBO report on immigration reform, from the Post’s write-up:

[Reform's] changes would boost spending on federal programs, including tax credits for low-income families, health-care benefits and law enforcement, the agency found. But those costs would be more than offset by an increase in tax revenue from a larger workforce, it said. In its second decade, when people currently living here illegally would become eligible for federal benefits, the legislation would reduce deficits by as much as $1 trillion, the CBO said.

Conservatives had demanded an analysis of reform’s second-decade impact, since that’s when many immigrants would become eligible for federal benefits. Now they have this analysis. And it isn’t telling them what they’d hoped to hear.

* BOEHNER VOWS TO STICK BY FICTIONAL “HASTERT RULE”: Will the House Speaker really refuse to allow the House to vote on any immigration reform bill that needs a lot of Democratic support to pass? Yesterday Boehner didn’t rule out breaking the non-existent “Hastert Rule” on a bill that emerges from conference negotiations.

But now the Times reports: “his staff later clarified that he would not violate the Hastert rule on anything coming out of conference, either.” Again: Even Boehner himself doesn’t really know how this is going to turn out.

* IS GOP SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRATION REFORM DISSIPATING? Politico reports today that support for reform among GOP officials is waning, partly because of this:

Congressional Republicans say the opposition from their activist base to the  Senate plan is only growing, making it easier for GOP senators to oppose the  Senate bill — particularly if the border security provisions remain largely unchanged.

Yeah, okay. But we always knew the base would resist reform. And we always knew Republicans would continue insisting on forever tougher border security measures. The question remains: Are Republicans prepared to support a path to citizenship with reasonable conditions attached, and accept the consequences from the base, or aren’t they?

* MUCH-NEEDED PERSPECTIVE ON THE IRS SCANDAL: With Republicans still making insinuations about White House involvement in or toleration of IRS targeting of conservatives, Glenn Kessler nails it: Even if the White House initially got the timing wrong on when it knew about the inspector general’s report, the big picture is there’s no evidence whatsoever to support the genuinely serious charges of wrongdoing here.

“There is no evidence the White House tried to suppress the report — or that officials even prepared a PR strategy for dealing with the revelations,” Kessler writes. “Congressional investigators have been interviewing IRS workers and officials, but thus far have not turned up any White House connection.” Some commentators have focused on the White House’s botched timeline on the IG report (the White House lied!!!) without leveling with readers about how significant it is.

* AND TODAY’S PLUM READS:

* Gallup identifies an interesting pattern: Obama’s approval has consistently hovered much higher than approval of Congress or public satisfaction with the direction of the country. Bad news for Obama Derangement Syndrome sufferers…

* Caitlin Huey-Burns reports that Senators who favor immigration reform are not rattled by Boehner’s chest-thumping threats not to take up the Senate bill, and continue to forge ahead towards passing something and sending it to the House.

* Sam Stein and Arthur Delaney have a good analysis of what that IRS probe transcript released yesterday by Elijah Cummings really tells us. Special bonus comic relief: Note that Darrell Issa claims that Cummings is the one who is “flailing” here.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.