Amid growing concerns about loose oversight and insufficient transparency associated with the government's electronic surveillance operations, lawmakers on Thursday plan to introduce legislation that would rein in the authorities of the secret court operating under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
At a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) announced plans to back bills that would bring proceedings at the FISA court more in line with those at conventional judicial courts, and roll back some of the secrecy provisions to shed more light on judges' rulings and the extent to which phone and Internet companies are sharing information about their customers' communications.
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Franken, citing the "lack of transparency around these programs," seemed to react with skepticism to the testimony of intelligence officials who insisted that they are eager to engage in the debate over the privacy implications of the National Security Agency's surveillance of phone records and digital communications.
"I don't want a situation where the government is transparent only when it's convenient for the government," Franken says. "When it's ad hoc transparency, that doesn't engender trust, I don't think."
Earlier on Wednesday morning, the director of national intelligence released a set of previously classified documents involving the NSA's bulk collection of telephone metadata, including the primary order, partially redacted, issued by the FISA court authorizing the program.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole defended the program before the committee, noting that the data that is being collected is abstracted to avoid personal identifiers like the contents of calls or the location of cell sites, and that within the intelligence community, access to the database is extremely limited.
"Nobody is listening to anyone's conversation through this program, and nobody could," Cole says.
At the same time, he allowed that the intelligence community is "constantly seeking to achieve the right balance between the protection of national security and the protection of privacy and civil liberties," but insisted that "the 11 judges on the FISA court are far from a rubber stamp."
The members of the judiciary panel generally acknowledged that government intelligence operations warrant an inherent level of secrecy, but several senators argued that the FISA proceedings need a stronger measure of transparency and accountability. Franken said that the legislation he plans to introduce would require disclosures about the number of Americans who have had their information collected and reviewed by intelligence authorities.