Momentum is building in Congress for the Obama administration to declassify a key aspect of government surveillance, the secret legal opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court that define the scope of the government’s powers under laws like the Patriot Act.
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California and Republican Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, have introduced a bipartisan House bill that would compel the administration to declassify the secret FISA court opinions unless the attorney general determines doing so would compromise national security. The bill follows on the heels of a similar proposal from Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Republican Mike Lee of Utah in the Senate.
“In order to have an informed public debate on the merits of these programs, it is important for the American people to know how such programs have been authorized, their limits and their scope,” Schiff said in a statement. Congress has previously voted down efforts to force the Obama administration to disclose more information about the way national security laws are interpreted.
As in Merkley and Lee’s proposal, the House bill gives the attorney general the option to offer a summary—or refuse to declassify an opinion outright—as long as they justify doing so to Congress.
President Obama told reporters in Germany Wednesday that he was “trying to find ways to declassify” more information about how government surveillance programs work “without completely compromising their effectiveness.”
FBI Director Robert Mueller also said in a Senate hearing Wednesday that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was looking into the possibility of declassifying FISA court opinions. So it’s possible that the administration could decide to do so on its own, but given its past record of disclosure on national security it isn’t likely.