Senators, Google push for transparency at surveillance court

The legislation and the request from Google follow news reports of massive NSA suveillance of U.S. residents

A bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators has introduced legislation that would require the nation's attorney general to declassify opinions issued by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in an effort to shed light on the government surveillance programs the surveillance court approves.

The bill, co-sponsored by Senators Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, would require that the substantive legal interpretations of U.S. surveillance law issued by FISC be made public. The legislation would allow the attorney general to keep court information classified if he determined that making it public would undermine national security interests, but would then require him to declassify a summary of that opinion.

The lawmakers introduced the legislation just days after a series of news reports by the Guardian and the Washington Post alleged that the U.S. National Security Agency is collecting massive amounts of U.S. residents' data from telephone carriers and Internet companies, potentially violating U.S. law.

"Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it's allowed to take under the law," Merkley said in a statement. "There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies. We can't have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans' communications should be permitted without ending secret law."

Meanwhile, Google also called on the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to allow the company to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests it receives from government agencies. The surveillance court generally prohibits companies from disclosing surveillance orders.

"Google's numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims [in the news media] being made," David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post. "Google has nothing to hide."

Google complies with "valid" legal requests, but government agencies don't have unlimited access to the company's data, Drummond wrote.

"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users' data are simply untrue," he said. "However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation."

The group of senators sponsoring the surveillance court declassification legislation also called for more transparency in the process.

"This bipartisan amendment establishes a cautious and reasonable process for declassification consistent with the rule of law," Lee said in a statement. "It will help ensure that the government makes sensitive decisions related to surveillance by applying legal standards that are known to the public. Particularly where our civil liberties are at stake, we must demand no less of our government."

Last December, Merkley introduced the bill as an amendment to the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act, the bill that authorizes the surveillance court. The bill would declassify the rulings related to provisions in the FISA Amendments Act and the Patriot Act used to gain access to Verizon phone records and the communications of customers of nine tech companies, he said.

The amendment failed at the time, but had the support of 37 senators.

A U.S. Department of Justice spokesman didn't immediately respond to questions about the legislation or Google's request.

Other sponsors of the legislation include Senators Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat; Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican; Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat; Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat; Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat; and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags Dean HellertelecommunicationDavid DrummondU.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance CourtAl FrankeninternetprivacyMike LeeJeff MerkleyGoogleRon WydenMark BegichsecuritygovernmentPatrick LeahyU.S. Department of JusticeU.S. SenateJon Tester

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