House Democrats want to expand congressional oversight and public disclosure of U.S. intelligence agencies conducting surveillance overseas.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, is pushing the White House and federal intelligence agencies to provide more information about the number of Americans whose communications are being monitored under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
“How do we make sure that FISA is not out of control? At this point we don’t have any way of knowing that,” Conyers said at a subcommittee hearing. “For goodness sake, just to ‘OK’ [FISA] again because we did it before, couldn’t we improve it a little bit?”
Conyers also said he was “disturbed by how little we know and how much more we need to know” but was looking forward to a closed door briefing with the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a representative from the Justice Department (DOJ), and other committee members.
Title VII of FISA, which is scheduled to expire at the end of the year, allows U.S. intelligence officials to obtain court orders to monitor phone calls, emails and other communications of suspected terrorists abroad.
Some Democrats have expressed their fear that Americans are having their Fourth Amendment rights violated.
In 2009, The New York Times reported that the National Security Agency had been intercepting private communications between American citizens, an issue which the Justice Department claims it has taken care of. It was also reported that U.S. intelligence officials attempted, unsuccessfully, to monitor a member of Congress who was abroad.
Democrats say that U.S. intelligence agencies have not provided Congress with the data it needs for appropriate oversight, such as the number of Americans who have been monitored by “accident”.
House Republicans are supporting the Obama administration’s push to extend its existing surveillance powers under the FISA provision past the end of the year, while House Democrats are opposed to extending them without strengthening their oversight and transparency of the surveillance tools.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the chairman of the subcommittee, said he was in favor of disclosure but worried about giving unnecessary information to terrorists.
“Say we release the actual number of people who were targeted, does that give the other side an indication as to the extent of the operational strength of our national security agencies?” Sensenbrenner asked.
Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said he didn’t think so.
Clapper, in a letter to Democratic Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) last year, said turning over data about the number of Americans monitored under FISA wasn’t feasible.
“It is not reasonably possible to identify the number of people located in the United States whose communications may have been reviewed under the authority,” Clapper wrote.
Udall and Wyden cast the only votes in the Senate Intelligence Committee last week against extending the measure, which was approved by a vote of 13-2. The two senators demanded that the White House turn over records that detail how many Americans have been tracked overseas.
The argument over FISA was one of the most contentious of 2008. At the time, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, drew the ire of liberals by voting for the measure.
Pelosi and Obama said the bill contained necessary security enhancements while providing a check on then-President Bush’s power by putting surveillance approval authority in the hands of a FISA court.