If the discovery of secret data-gathering by government intelligence agencies has any silver linings, they may include the legislation that would declassify many secret court rulings in intelligence cases, proposed by Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
Lee's bill failed in the Senate in late 2012, when Congress reauthorized the courts created under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. We've since learned that the secret court authorized data collection on all phone calls through major carriers, including phone number, location and duration of the calls, but not, according to the Obama administration, actual conversations.
It also backed PRISM, a program that allows the agency to delve into the online activities of people it believes pose a threat to the United States. That reportedly includes watching online conversations and even sometimes email messages as they are being typed. The NSA admits it sometimes unintentionally picks up information on Americans, but says its focus is on people who are not U.S. citizens. All this may be necessary in the battle against terrorism, but the vast secrecy is not.
The legislation sponsored by Lee and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., would rightly require the U.S. attorney general to make public the opinions of FISA courts when the information in them wouldn't undermine national security. The attorney general could release summaries of cases in which the opinions include sensitive information. And when the attorney general doesn't think even a summary is possible, he or she would be required to make a report to Congress.
Lee has been a vocal opponent of secret government surveillance and information gathering since he took office two years ago. He questioned, rightly as it turns out, how far the intelligence agencies were delving into private information.
Lee said his bill would "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."
The concerns raised by Lee and Merkley last year surged to the forefront after a National Security Agency security contractor leaked classified records to the British newspaper the Guardian and The Washington Post. President Obama and the leaders of intelligence committees of both parties say that NSA programs have helped prevent terrorist attacks and defended their secrecy by arguing the covert operations were implemented with appropriate constitutional safeguards.
Americans have a right to judge that for themselves.