At an appearance in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday morning, President Obama said he was “trying to find ways to declassify” more information about government surveillance programs “without completely compromising their effectiveness.”
Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley has a suggestion: Declassify the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court opinions so that Americans know just how the law is being interpreted. “Members of Congress cannot publicly discuss, let alone debate, the way that the executive and judicial branches are interpreting the law,” Merkley writes in a letter to the president first noted by the Washington Post. “[W]ithout disclosing and debating the interpretation of the law, it is a fruitless exercise to debate whether and how to change laws which we are periodically asked to reauthorize.”
Merkley and Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee recently reintroduced legislation to compel the administration to declassify those opinions—or, failing that, offer a declassified summary of how laws like the Patriot Act are being interpreted. But Congress has rejected Merkley’s efforts in the past, and the president has the authority to declassify anything he wants. From the perspective of civil libertarian groups, declassifying these opinions is the minimum the administration can do, since without doing so the public can’t really be certain what Congress is voting for when it votes for national security laws. (Sometimes, members of Congress don’t even know).
In the past, the administration has been cool to proposals like these. Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin called Merkley’s declassification bill “ill-fated.” Prompted by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller III said that redacted versions of the FISA court opinions could be a possibility, saying that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was “looking at” releasing secret court opinions related to key Patriot Act powers. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually do it.