The NSA has become the talk of the town in Washington after The Guardian leaked a number of documents revealing the extent of the agency's spy programs. President Obama and a number of senators have voiced their support for the program, but others are wanting to inject some transparency into the NSA's data request process.
The Hill reports that Sen. Jeff Merkley has introduced a bill that would force the secret FISA courts to declassify its "significant opinions" regarding NSA requests for data under the FISA amendments and PATRIOT Act. The bill is aimed directly at the assumption that the FISA courts use alternate interpretations of the law to bypass the "plain reading of the law passed by Congress."
Merkley also says that he wants the opinions out in the open so that the American people can better debate the pros and cons of the NSA spy program:
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law. 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.”
One of the bill's co-sponsors and outspoken NSA opponent, Sen. Ron Wyden, echoed Merkley:
“It is impossible for the American people to have an informed public debate about laws that are interpreted, enforced, and adjudicated in complete secrecy. When talking about the laws governing Intelligence operations, the process has little to no transparency. Declassifying FISA Court opinions in a form that does not put sources and methods at risk will give the American people insight into what government officials believe the law allows them to do.”
Surprisingly enough, the bill has garned quite a bit of bipartisan support. Prominent lawmakers from both parties have signed on as co-sponsors in the hopes that their political clout can move this bill along.
Some senators aren't as optimistic about the bill's chances, however, with Sen. Dick Durbin in particular saying that the bill is "going to be ill-fated." What he means is that there's very little chance the White House will support the bill. President Obama has voiced his support for the secret FISA courts, secret NSA spying and the collecting of phone records ever since the programs were leaked to the public. His justification is that "you can't have 100 percent security, and also then have 100 percent security."
If the bill can't get through Congress, what other options for transparency do we have? Well, as the old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. In fact, Google and Facebook are now both lobbying the government to let them be more transparent about requests for data. Google already publishes the number of national security requests it receives, but it now wants to publish more.
It's hard to say what will happen in the end, but the debate over how much the NSA can keep secret will rage on for months. That can only be a good thing.