The White House is trying to have it both ways on NSA transparency

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) has offered an amendment to a defense spending bill that would restrict the National Security Agency's ability to collect bulk phone records and metadata under the Patriot Act. The proposal has gotten the attention of the Obama administration. White House spokesman Jay Carney came out against the proposal last night, and the government has dispatched NSA Director Keith Alexander to Capitol Hill to lobby against it.


White House Press Secretary finger waggling July 23, 2013 (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Carney called Amash's proposal a "blunt approach" and "not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process.” That's ironic, because the Obama administration has opposed previous attempts to make the debate over the NSA more transparent.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was forced to apologize for making "erroneous" claims about the extent of NSA data collection on U.S. citizens during a public hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Department of Justice has also attempted to get lawsuits challenging government surveillance dismissed during President Obama's time in office.

The president has claimed the NSA programs were transparent because of the existence of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). But the court's secretive procedures provide little information to guide public debate.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) have proposed legislation requiring the Attorney General to declassify significant FISC opinions. And even before Edward Snowden's leaks, several senators, including Merkley, requested that the court at least release summaries of significant interpretations. The government showed little enthusiasm for those proposals. As a result, Ed Snowden's leaks became the primary way Americans have learned about the NSA's domestic surveillance programs.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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