One of the worst things about the recently leaked NSA spy programs is what the agency calls “incidental data.” In short, it’s data on innocent Americans that gets picked up alongside data on non-Americans. The agency claims it can’t look at it, but the mere fact that they have this information has Americans and lawmakers concerned.
The Hill reports that Reps. Justin Amash and John Conyers have introduced the Limiting Internet and Blanket Electronic Review of Telecommunications and Email Act, or LIBERT-E for short, into the House. The bill would amend the PATRIOT Act to prevent the NSA from being able to collect this “incidental data” and focus the agency exclusively on collecting information on foreign threats.
The bill doesn’t just rewrite the PATRIOT Act though. It requires the Attorney General to brief all of Congress on the government’s data collection programs. As of now, the Attorney General only has to answer to the House and Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.
The Attorney General would also be required to hand over unclassified summaries of FISA court opinions and orders to Congress for review after 180 days. As of now, FISA court orders are kept secret from everybody not on the Intelligence Committees.
Don’t get me wrong – stopping the collection of incidental data is a good thing, but it would be all for naught without more transparency. That’s why the bill’s call for increased transparency is by far the most important part about this bill. It would be better if the bill called for the kind of transparency that would reveal NSA information to the American public, but starting with Congress is a good baby step. Besides, there’s something seriously wrong with our system if we have to keep FISA court orders secret from the majority of our lawmakers.
Oh, and if you were wondering, a few Senators are pushing for a similar bill that would introduce transparency into the FISA courts. Unlike the above House bill, however, the Senate bill, penned by Sen. Jeff Merkley, would require the FISA courts to declassify its “significant opinions” for all.
Unfortunately, neither bill has much chance of being signed into law. Most lawmakers on the Intelligence Committees are hardline supporters of the secret FISA courts, and President Obama, despite saying he wants to be more transparent, seems like he’s still in favor of keeping everything hush hush as well.