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 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. 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. 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).