OpenTheGovernment is calling on the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to not abandon his commitment to provide a public estimate of the number of Americans whose digital communications are collected under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act – a provision providing the NSA broad authority to spy on foreign targets. In a letter to DNI Director Dan Coats, OTG joined a coalition of open government, privacy and civil liberty groups expressing dismay over his announcement that the administration would not be providing this figure, and rejecting his justifications for abandoning the commitment.
Coats’ refusal to provide the information reverses previous commitments made by this administration. Before retiring, NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett confirmed that an estimate would be made public by the end of 2017. In April, members of Congress received commitments in briefings from the NSA and ODNI that an estimate would be provided “early enough to inform the debate” about Section 702.
The announcement comes as Congress is weighing reauthorization of Section 702, set to expire at the end of this year. Last week, 14 Republican senators, including every Republican member of the intelligence panel, introduced a bill supported by the White House that would permanently reauthorize Section 702 without any changes.
“The public has the right and the urgent need to know how many Americans are caught-up in the NSA’s warrantless surveillance programs,” according to Lisa Rosenberg, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment. “This administration must not be allowed to backtrack on its promise to adhere to baseline transparency commitments, especially at a moment when the White House is urging Congress to make permanent one of the government’s most sweeping surveillance authorities.”
Despite a number of important transparency disclosures over recent years, Congress and the public are still largely in the dark about Section 702. Members of Congress have repeatedly noted that it is difficult to get answers from the intelligence community, and that attending classified hearings on NSA programs does not allow them to share information they obtain with staff and other experts. Greater transparency is needed to better understand the impact Section 702 has on the public’s privacy and civil liberties, before the law is reformed or reauthorized.