Calls for Transparency and Oversight on Intelligence Surveillance Programs – August 6, 2013 Newsletter

In This Issue:
News from Coalition Partners & Others
I. Calls for Transparency and Oversight on Intelligence Surveillance Programs
II. Legislation Aimed at Reforming Classification System Introduced

News from Coalition Partners & Others


Center for Effective Government Files Comments on FAA Data Policy

National Freedom of Information Coalition and OpenTheGovernment.org joined comments drafted by the Center for Effective Government in response to the Federal Aviation Administration’s proposed Data and Information Distribution Policy. The comments advised that the FAA provide clarification to strengthen citizen access to public information and that the FAA’s effort to streamline information distribution should emphasize the presumption of openness and make data as openly available as possible.

I. Calls for Transparency and Oversight on Intelligence Surveillance Programs

The House of Representatives recently took the first vote on limiting the government's national security surveillance programs since their broad scope was revealed by a series of leaked documents and press reports. Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI) offered an amendment to the House's version of the 2014 Defense Appropriations bill to bar the government from using Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to collect records on people who are not the subject of an investigation. The amendment, which narrowly failed, would have ended the government's mass collection of phone metadata from companies like Verizon.

Far from viewing the vote as a defeat, many privacy and civil liberties advocates noted that the vote was extremely close and previous efforts to rein in national security programs had not enjoyed nearly as much support or public attention. Indeed, signs point towards intense interest in Congress and even in one independent corner of the executive branch in reining in the programs. Advocacy groups are also organizing to demand transparency and oversight. Some notable examples include:

  • Last Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to review the NSA's surveillance programs. Sixty groups, including OpenTheGovernment.org and many coalition partners, joined the ACLU in welcoming the hearing and recommending specific steps to reform the programs.
  • Members of Congress have introduced bills to address concerns with the programs. OpenTheGovernment.org has formally endorsed the FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act of 2013, a bill introduced by Senator Leahy that would increase transparency and public reporting on the programs, and the Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013, a bill recently introduced by Senator Franken that would also improve public reporting.
  • The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), the independent Executive Branch agency charged with advising the President on privacy and civil liberties issues with respect to the government’s national security programs, held a public hearing on privacy and civil liberties concerns with the programs. OpenTheGovernment.org and our partners at National Security Counselors joined with the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) in submitting comments to the PCLOB identifying several concerns with the recently-revealed programs. The groups’ recommendations included defining the retention period for collected data, and aligning the sunset times of both the Sections of the law that the Administration claims the programs are authorized under, Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

 

I. Legislation Aimed at Reforming Classification System Introduced

Last week Senators Shaheen and Risch introduced a bill that would help push forward some of the proposals made last year by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) to improve the classification and declassification system. As highlighted in a blog post by the National Declassification Center (NDC), the proposed bill would require agencies to report to Congress on the feasibility of putting a "short-term" classification system in place that would allow the automatic declassification of records that are classified based on their sensitivity with respect to a pertinent event — once the event is over, the records no longer need to be protected. The bill would also make some reforms that would improve the operation of the National Declassification Center and extend the authorization of the PIDB through 2018. Additionally, the bill would require agencies to report to Congress on options for pilot programs to improve the declassification process, on the feasibility of moving from the current three-tiered system (Top Secret, Secret, and Confidential) to a two tiered system, and on the feasibility of declassifying obsolete nuclear information that has no national security value.

Since the release of the PIDB's recommendations last November, we've urged the President to begin implementing some of the suggestions, including setting up a White-House led steering committee to focus on fixing the classification system. As documented in our Secrecy Report, efforts to improve the declassification process have not kept pace with the escalating amount of classified material produced by the intelligence community. While President Obama's Executive Order on Classification, EO 13526, takes some positive steps, including requiring agencies to update their classification guides and setting up the NDC, more needs to be done. We welcome Congress' continued involvement in finding a solution.

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