Sunday, January 06, 2013

A Plan To Stop The Feds From Reading Your Emails

Adam Serwer reports,

A handful of senators are working to amend the bill to ensure that Americans are less likely to be spied on without a warrant and that the government discloses more information about how broad its surveillance powers truly are. Among them are Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Wyden has told the Senate leadership he will lift his months-long hold on the bill in exchange for a limited debate on the outstanding issues with the surveillance bill that the amendments are meant to address. The law will expire in the next few weeks.

There are four big changes these lawmakers are pushing for:
  • The public currently has no idea how often Americans have been swept up in the National Security Agency's surveillance of foreign targets. When Wyden and Udall inquired about this, an NSA official deadpanned that it would violate Americans' privacy to reveal how many Americans have had their communications monitored. A Senate aide confirmed Wyden's office is working on an amendment that would compel further disclosure.
  • Merkley previously introduced a bill in August, the Protect Americans' Privacy Act, that would prevent the NSA from collecting information on Americans without a warrant simply by intercepting communications with a foreign target. That bill hasn't made it past the committee stage, but Merkley intends to introduce an amendment that would prevent such "reverse targeting" of Americans under the NSA's surveillance program.
  • Wyden has expressed concern about "backdoor searches," where Americans' communications—emails, phone calls—are intercepted without a warrant and then stored in an NSA database, which government officials can later sift through. Wyden and Udall introduced an amendment in June to prevent these "backdoor searches," only to see it voted down—but Wyden will likely make another attempt when the FISA amendments reauthorization comes up for a vote. 
  • The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that approves requests for surveillance on suspected foreign agents in the United States also interprets the scope of the US government's surveillance laws. This takes place entirely in secret, and only a few members of Congress and their staff members have the authority to view these laws in their entirety. As it stands, Americans have no idea how broadly (or narrowly) the secret court has interpreted these laws. Merkley is working on an amendment that would compel the government to declassify these opinions—or at least offer a declassified summary, so that members of Congress and the public can at least make informed judgments. 
What's unclear, however, is how many of these amendments will actually get a vote. The only attempt to force greater transparency that is guaranteed a vote is a proposal by Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.); the measure would force the government to disclose a public, unclassified summary of the secret reports it sends to select members of Congress every year about how the surveillance program actually works. (Leahy's amendment is only guaranteed a vote because of a technicality in the Senate rules related to the judiciary and intelligence committees' jurisdiction over the bill.) 

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