The recent news that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) ordered Verizon to turn over to the National Security Agency the mass collection of telephone call logs generated by millions of Verizon customers likely comes as a shock for many Americans. While officials within all three branches of our government signed off on or were briefed on the program, the public has been left completely in the dark about the scope and the extent of the government’s domestic spying.
The leaked FISC order posted by The Guardian and follow-on reporting improves public understanding of the program by making at least a few facts clear: the amount of data collected from Verizon was massive, and could be part of a regular collection process; the Executive branch believes its actions are legally justified; at least some, if not all, Members of Congress were briefed on the program; and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court signed off on the data collection.
What the leaked document does not tell us, however, is anything about the full scope of the government’s secret domestic surveillance program, including just how many people may be caught up in the dragnet and how long it has been going on. While it apparently is based on Section 215 of the PATRIOT ACT, the federal government has continually refused to release the Department of Justice’s legal interpretation of that provision, which allows the government to obtain “tangible things." In the absence of any explanation of the legal authority behind the program or its scope, we must assume this order is only the tip of the iceberg.
“This revelation is the latest in a growing body of revelations that show how the federal government’s excessive secrecy leads to a culture of unaccountability that permits such abuses of authority to occur,” said Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org.
Just like secret laws, secret programs like this one are fundamentally at odds with our democracy. In order to restore trust in the government, and enable the public to have a meaningful voice in shaping public policies, we call on the President to provide the public with a description of the full scope of the program, and the DOJ’s legal rationale for it.