Coalition voices support for strong bipartisan Senate surveillance reform legislation

OpenTheGovernment joined a letter of support today for bipartisan legislation to reform the warrantless surveillance law that gives the government sweeping authority to collect communications of people within and outside the U.S. — Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The legislation, introduced by Senator Paul and Senator Wyden, is the strongest reform proposal currently on the table as Congress debates whether to reauthorize, reform, or allow the law to expire before the end of the year.

The legislation includes some tangible transparency measures that would reduce the potential for privacy, civil liberties and civil rights abuses stemming from the broad surveillance programs authorized under Section 702. Notably, the bill includes reporting requirements for domestic law enforcement use of information collected under the cover of foreign intelligence and national security purposes. Some of the highlights of the legislation include the following:

  • FBI statistics: The bill requires the FBI to report on the number of its U.S. person queries of Section 702, a requirement that already applies to the CIA and NSA. This would close the loophole that has allowed the FBI to avoid reporting the number of times it accesses the warrantless databases as part of its regular investigations.  
  • Statistics on Americans Swept Up by Section 702: The legislation requires the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to publish an estimate of the number of Americans whose communications are swept up under section 702 or an estimate of the number of communications collected to which a person inside the U.S. is a party.
  • FISC Opinions: Surveillance reforms from 2015 (the USA Freedom Act) required the government to declassify significant interpretations of law or statutory language by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The Justice Department, however, has interpreted that requirement to only apply to decisions of the court issued after the enactment of the 2015 reforms. This bill clarifies that the government must declassify all pre-2015 FISC decisions in addition to those opinions already disclosed to the public.

Additionally, the legislation ends access by domestic law enforcement agencies to Americans’ communication without a probable cause warrant or any evidence of criminal activity (closing the “backdoor search loophole”), enacts strict limits on law enforcement’s use of data in the Section 702 database, and creates a system of notice to defendants where warrantless data has been used in domestic criminal cases.

“We applaud the bipartisan efforts underway in the Senate to address the problems surrounding the government’s far-reaching spying legal authorities,according to Lisa Rosenberg, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment. “This legislation would apply critical sunlight and accountability mechanisms to surveillance programs that have raised serious constitutional concerns, and ensure important safeguards to protect the public from potential government overreach.”

Read the coalition letter here

Additional resources: read a one-page memo on the bill, section by section analysis, and the legislative text