Over the weekend the New York Times revealed new details about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions authorizing the National Security Agency’s broad, classified surveillance programs gathering data on millions of Americans. The paper reported that a whole “secret body of law” has effectively been built up that vastly expands the NSA’s powers to collect huge amounts of info while carving out “an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures.”
Progressives and Dems who continue to care about this issue can push Democratic leaders to vocally call for more transparency around these opinions and to get behind the proposal being pushed by a bipartisan group of Senators, including progressive Jeff Merkley and Tea Partyer Mike Lee — and a companion measure in the House — that would compel the Obama administration to declassify and release them.
Here’s the current state of play so far: Most Democratic leaders have yet to take a public position on this legislation, according to a quick survey of their offices I undertook today. The current tally is as follows.
On the House side, Nancy Pelosi‘s office confirms to me that she supports the version of the bill being pushed in the House by a handful of Dems and Republicans. That’s a step forward.
On the Senate side, Harry Reid has promised to “take a look” at the Senate version of the legislation, but he has not publicly said whether he supports it; his office didn’t return an email asking for an update. Dick Durbin has publicly encouraged the effort, though he predicted it would be “ill-fated,” and his office confirms he continues to evaluate it.
Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Community, has signed a letter generally expressing support for declassification of FISA court opinions, but her spokesman confirmed to me the other day that she has no position on the current bill. I’m awaiting an answer from Chuck Schumer‘s office as to his position.
Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has co-sponsored the legislation, and Senator Patty Murray has also signed on as a co-sponsor, her office confirms. That makes Leahy, Murray, and Pelosi the only Dem leaders I’m aware of who have supported it so far.
To be fair, all of the above Dem Senate leaders (with the exception of Feinstein) voted for a similar amendment declassifying FISA court opinions at the end of last year. That’s good. But since then, of course, we have had the revelations courtesy of Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden, which theoretically should prompt an increase in calls for more transparency, yet many Dem leaders still are not yet prepared to back the current bill to accomplish this.
“Many of these Democratic leaders are on record supporting transparency for these programs, including some `yes’ votes on identical language just last year,” Michelle Richardson, a leading attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, tells me. “They should cosponsor the proposals and make them a priority.”
The Times story should theoretically prompt still more urgency here. It demonstrates that the FISA court has created this new body of secret law “without hearing from anyone outside the government, forgoing the adversarial system that is a staple of the American justice system.”
To reiterate, pushing for the declassification of the opinions authorizing the NSA programs — which could be done in summary form or with redactions to protect sensitive information if necessary — does not constitute opposition to the programs themselves. Dems should support this step, and push for it. If they have a good reason to oppose it, they should tell us what it is.
UPDATE: Senator Schumer’s office just confirmed to me that he supports the Merkley bill, which is definitely another step forward.