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The Day We Fight Back: NSA Reform Bills to End Mass Surveillance and Provide Greater Transparency

Benjamin Franklin with quote from paragraph 2
Benjamin Franklin

Today, February 11, 2014, individuals and groups are participating in “The Day We Fight Back,” a day of action protesting the US government’s mass surveillance programs. Revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) programs, including the breadth and scope of bulk collection of data conducted under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act (also known as the “library records provision”) have raised serious concerns regarding curtailment of civil liberties and the compatibility of these programs with the First and Fourth Amendments.

Following revelations about the NSA bulk collection of data, members of Congress have introduced various bills to address concerns regarding privacy and civil liberties. Members of Congress have also cited concerns regarding the lack of public trust resulting from the secrecy of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which involves a non-adversarial proceeding where only the government’s views are heard and the opinions have been kept secret. As Benjamin Franklin stated, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Members of Congress have likewise noted that the choice between security and liberty is a false one; civil liberties represent a cornerstone of the very American values that Congress sought to defend in enacting provisions to enhance national security.

Even prior to these disclosures, the library community expressed reservations (PDF) regarding legislation granting the government overly broad national security powers and urged necessary reform (PDF) to Section 215 and the national security letters (NSLs) program (which allows collection of data and communication without a warrant). These recommendations included (PDF), among others, requiring clear connections to a terrorist or spy for a valid order collecting information, greater judicial oversight and review of FISC decisions, prevention of bulk surveillance of categories of persons, rational limits on the scope of NSLs, and promotion of greater transparency.

Reform efforts are currently underway, some addressing changes previously advocated for by the library community. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing examining proposed reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and tomorrow the Senate Judiciary will hold a hearing on reforms proposed by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB). With Congress prepared to take an active, and likely swift, role in reforming statutes related to intelligence gathering, three bills show promise in better protecting privacy and civil liberties, promoting greater transparency, and restoring the public trust: the USA FREEDOM Act, the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act, and the Ending Secret Law Act/FISA Court [another name for the FISC] in the Sunshine Act of 2013. The USA FREEDOM Act and Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act are comprehensive bills, addressing not only transparency, but also the core issues regarding the collection of data.


Representative Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Senator Leahy (D-VT) introduced identical bills known as the USA FREEDOM Act, on October 29, 2013. The House bill, H.R. 3361 (PDF), initially had 78 bipartisan co-sponsors. As noted by Ranking Member Conyers (D-MI), the bill now has 130 supporters, with an even split between Republicans and Democrats. The Senate bill, S. 1599 (PDF), now has 19 bipartisan co-sponsors.

The USA FREEDOM Act would effectively end bulk collection of data currently collected by the NSA. The amendments proposed by the USA FREEDOM Act would permit the government to request only the records that “pertain to” a “foreign power or an agent of a foreign power,” the records about the activities of such person under investigation, and records of individuals in contact with such person.

The bill would reform the NSLs program, which currently allows the FBI to request communication and other data without a warrant. The bill seeks to harmonize NSLs with the amendments proposed to the Section 215 program and is designed to prevent bulk collection of records.

With respect to the FISA Court, the bill would create an Office of the Special Advocate, designed to advocate on behalf of interpretations that protect privacy rights and civil liberties and effectively ending the current ex parte proceedings wherein only the government’s view is heard. The Special Advocate would also be permitted to appeal FISC decisions. In addition to providing a voice for the public’s privacy rights, the USA FREEDOM Act would enhance transparency by requiring the government to make regular reports estimating the total number of individuals subject to FISA orders regarding electronic surveillance, pen registers, and business records. The bill would also direct the Attorney General to declassify decisions or summarize FISC decisions of significant interpretation, consistent with national security considerations.

The USA FREEDOM Act would not only promote greater transparency of FISC opinions and orders, but would also allow companies to publicly report the number of FISA orders and national security letters received and the number of users or accounts where information was demanded under such orders. It also places an obligation on the government to publicly report estimates of the total number of individuals and US persons subject to FISA orders or NSLs.

The USA FREEDOM Act introduces a number of meaningful and necessary reforms. This bill could be further improved, however, if it incorporated key elements of the USA PATRIOT Amendments Act of 2009, a bill that was introduced but never passed (PDF). That bill included several other reforms, including the prohibition of the use of Section 215 orders to obtain personally identifiable information about patrons from libraries, greater judicial review of both Section 215 orders and NSLs, and minimization procedures to ensure destruction of information obtained under national security powers once they are no longer relevant to an ongoing investigation.

Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act

In September 2013, Senator Wyden (D-OR) introduced the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act. The bill now has 13 co-sponsors, also with bipartisan support. Both the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act and the USA FREEDOM Act propose comprehensive reform to the surveillance programs. While the bills are not identical, many of the provisions are substantially similar and largely address the same issues, including effective prohibition of bulk collection under Section 215, harmonization of NSLs with the reforms to Section 215, providing special advocates in FISC proceedings, and greater transparency of FISC opinions and programs’ collection of data.

Ending Secret Law Act/FISA Court in the Sunshine Act of 2013

Two bills designed to provide greater transparency of FISC orders, opinions, and decisions (currently kept secret) were introduced into both the Senate and House. The Senate bill, Ending Secret Law Act, S.1130, was introduced by Senator Merkley (D-OR) and has bipartisan co-sponsorship. A nearly identical bill entitled FISA Court in the Sunshine Act, H.R. 2440, was introduced by Representative Jackson Lee (D-TX) and also has bipartisan support.

The bills would require the Attorney General to disclose each FISC decision and order, unless such opinion or order cannot be declassified without harming national security interests. If declassification is not possible, the Attorney General is directed to disclose a summary of the opinion. If a summary of the opinion is not possible, the Attorney General is required to make a report available to the public on the “status of the internal deliberations and process regarding the declassification.”

The Ending Secret Law Act/FISA Court in the Sunshine Act would provide greater transparency to FISC decisions and orders than the USA FREEDOM Act by requiring disclosure of each decision, order, or opinion, not just those involving significant interpretations. Certainly, the reforms proposed by these bills are welcome as they promote greater transparency and enhance public debate surrounding the important intersection of security and civil liberties.

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 125 research libraries in the US and Canada. ARL’s mission is to influence the changing environment of scholarly communication and the public policies that affect research libraries and the diverse communities they serve. ARL pursues this mission by advancing the goals of its member research libraries, providing leadership in public and information policy to the scholarly and higher education communities, fostering the exchange of ideas and expertise, facilitating the emergence of new roles for research libraries, and shaping a future environment that leverages its interests with those of allied organizations. ARL is on the web at http://www.arl.org/.

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