Opinion: Accountability, transparency should be essential requirements for government agencies

Published on Wed, Aug 28, 2013 by Suzan DelBene

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The revelations of secret government surveillance programs earlier this year were deeply troubling. Specifically, the bulk collection of the personal phone records of millions of Americans, whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing or not, has raised serious constitutional concerns.

The disclosure of these programs revealed just how little the American public knows about what their government is doing in the name of national security. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I have joined with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, many of whom supported and even drafted the original Patriot Act, to scrutinize the legal basis for these programs. My position is that the bulk collection of phone records of millions of Americans is inconsistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act.

That is why I voted in support of an important amendment to the defense appropriations bill last month. The amendment, sponsored by Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI), made this basic claim: If there’s no reasonable connection between you and an ongoing investigation, the government shouldn’t seize your phone data.

The amendment would have prevented the bulk collection of sensitive information on innocent Americans, while ensuring law enforcement and our national security agencies still have the tools necessary to conduct targeted investigations against suspected terrorists.

The Amash-Conyers amendment was modeled on the bipartisan LIBERT-E Act, which I have co-sponsored. This bill provides that the government may use Section 215 of the Patriot Act to access Americans’ records only if the government presents to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court specific and articulable facts that show the data is related to an individual who is the subject of an ongoing national security investigation.

The LIBERT-E Act also requires the FISA court’s opinions to be made more transparent. As the FISA court has issued far-reaching opinions interpreting the legal authorities provided by the Patriot Act, it’s been frustrating that the court has operated almost completely out of public view.

With technology having dramatically changed the way we communicate, our expectations of privacy and the legal framework to protect our privacy have become out of sync. As a former technology executive and entrepreneur, I am keenly aware of the deep concerns that have been expressed by both consumers and U.S. tech companies alike. Lawmakers must examine how technology is impacted by and interacts with the government’s surveillance programs.

The public is eager for a national conversation on how to strike the right balance between privacy and 

national security. I’m glad the President has said publicly that he believes a debate is necessary. However, for this conversation to be meaningful, Congress and the public must be provided with information about how the government is using its surveillance authorities.

To this end, I have also cosponsored bipartisan legislation – the Surveillance Order Reporting Act – to allow companies to disclose the number of surveillance orders they receive and how many people are affected. Companies are currently barred from disclosing even basic information about the requests they receive, despite a growing chorus of technology firms who have called for this greater transparency. 

The blanket collection of metadata on millions of Americans suggests that the balance of national security and civil liberties has been disrupted. In conducting this sort of surveillance, the executive branch is threatening existing principles of privacy that have been enshrined in our constitution.

I want to be clear – I support giving our national security agencies the tools necessary to target suspected terrorists. What’s key is that these actions must be targeted. That is the sort of authority that FISA was designed to grant.

Working with my colleagues in Congress, I urge further scrutiny of these programs and consideration of legislation that will create more transparency and rein them in. Now that some of these programs are no longer in the dark, we must ensure that our intelligence programs have meaningful oversight, accountability and transparency.

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