WASHINGTON, February 2, 2016 – Today, the House Judiciary Committee held a classified hearing on Section 702 of the FISA – a legal provision used to acquire the communications of Americans and people around the world alike without a warrant. The Chairman of the Committee, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatten made reference to his prior commitment to conduct oversight on the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) and its provisions at the start of the hearing. While the Chairman indicated that future public hearings would take place, all members who were present voted in favor of the motion to hold the hearing in closed session.
Members of the Intelligence Community – from the ODNI, DOJ, NSA, and FBI – released a joint unclassified statement that was made available on the House Judiciary Committee’s website. The statement includes an overview of Section 702, along with examples of cases where Section 702 was reportedly integral to countering terrorist plots. While the nature of the closed hearing allowed for the Intelligence Community to use the hearing to put out a public statement, it did not allow for the claims to be challenged by legal experts. In order to ensure that the intelligence agencies are not violating the rule of law Congress should fulfill its constitutional oversight role and include representation and engagement of privacy, civil liberties, and human rights organizations, in the oversight of Section 702 of the FISA.
On January 27, OpenTheGovernment.org, joined 25 organizations committed to government openness, personal privacy, civil liberties and human rights, sent a letter to the Chairman and the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, noting our understanding that the Committee planned to hold a closed session on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and expressing our strong opposition.
The letter emphasizes that the Intelligence, Armed Services, and the Judiciary Committees of both chambers have been able to hold open hearings on matters of national security, deferring only those questions that require classified answers into a closed hearing, and that, in the case of Section 702 implementation oversight, a completely closed hearing is unnecessary to provide members with an adequate understanding of how the law is currently implemented by the executive branch — and whether that exceeds Congress’ original intent.
In today’s global communications environment, disclosures of information about how Section 702 operates have confirmed the validity of many of the public’s and civil society’s concerns that this statute implicates the privacy rights of millions of people in the US and around the world who communicate with friends and colleagues abroad, including human rights activists who rely on secure communications for their safety, and journalists who interact with confidential sources to report on issues in the public interest.
The signatories write, “We urge you to change the designation of your upcoming session on Section 702 to “open,” consistent with Congress’s constitutional oversight role, long standing congressional practice, and principles of transparency and justice.”
Read the letter here.