Privacy Board’s New Report Weak on Transparency – July 8, 2014 Newsletter

– Brief Updates on Coalition Partners & Others (more)
– Introducing The Classified Section (more)
– Privacy Board’s New Report Weak on Transparency (more)

News from Coalition Partners & Others

Groups Push Back on Congressional Ethics Change

On July 2nd, the National Journal reported that the House of Representative had removed the requirement that members of Congress disclose their privately-funded travel in annual financial disclosure forms. The change was made without public consultation and shined a light on the barriers to public access to Congressional ethics information. Eleven civil society groups wrote to the House Committee on Ethics’ chairman and ranking member urging them to restore the reporting requirement and act to make congressional ethics disclosure documents more accessible. The next day, Chairman Michael Conaway said the Committee would reverse the decision.

MERIT Act Puts Ethics Constraints on Use of Campaign Funds

Ten groups joined the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) in their support for Rep. Jackie Speier’s MERIT Act, which, among other changes to prohibit campaigns from directly benefiting candidates or their relatives, would make lobbying by family members of members of Congress more transparent. Read the letter thanking Rep. Speier for her attention to ethics reforms here.

Introducing The Classified Section

At the end of June, launched The Classified Section, a new blog on national security and transparency issues. The latest blog post scrutinizes what the newest Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) report leaves unanswered about the NSA’s surveillance programs. Other posts take a close look at the recently released targeted killing memo, and examine the holes in the ODNI’s transparency report.

Privacy Board’s New Report Weak on Transparency

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) released its report on the government’s use of section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act last week. The report contains important new information about how section 702 works, but its recommendations for change are disappointingly weak. On the transparency front, PCLOB acknowledged that too much “incidental collection” of information on U.S. persons under section 702 might call the program’s constitutionality into question, and that “lawmakers and the public do not have even have a rough estimate of how many communications are acquired under section 702.” But the Board largely accepted the NSA’s refusal to provide an estimate on grounds that it would be logistically impossible, and “invasive of privacy”. (PCLOB did recommend that Congress be provided with certain numbers that give a more limited “snapshot” about 702 collection’s impact on Americans’ privacy.)

Three days after PCLOB released its report, the Washington Post published its analysis of over 160,000 electronic communications intercepted by the NSA, which Edward Snowden had provided to reporters so they could understand the scope of surveillance. The data had been “minimized“ by the NSA, meaning that some information was deleted, and U.S. persons’ identities were redacted. According to the Post, “[n]early half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents.” The Post also pointed out that if reporters could do this math, so could the NSA:

The NSA, backed by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., has asserted that it is unable to make any estimate, even in classified form, of the number of Americans swept in. It is not obvious why the NSA could not offer at least a partial count, given that its analysts routinely pick out “U.S. persons” and mask their identities, in most cases, before distributing intelligence reports.

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