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Senate Intelligence Committee to hold review of FISA

Proposed legislation could offer some transparency on government surveillance programs

Since details surrounding the scope of U.S. intelligence operations targeting American citizens were revealed by Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency program PRISM and the laws justifying it (the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) have received scrutiny over the level of power they should have.

On Sept. 26, the Senate Intelligence Committee will holding a hearing to review FISA and consider legislation proposed to limit its sweeping power over information collection on American citizens.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, many of the proposed bills will evaluate Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which could change the way the FISA court operates, limiting the government’s ability to collect unwarranted information on U.S. citizens. As of yet, no proposed bills target section 702 of FISA, which is being used to justify PRISM’s wider spread and ongoing surveillance.

As it stands right now, all decisions to engage in information gathering under FISA need the approval of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to proceed. Because of the sensitive nature of the items discussed in this court, its hearings are not made public without the consent of the U.S. attorney general. The lack of transparency in the FISC has received much focus on Capitol Hill and is the subject of several proposed FISA amendments.

Among the legislation proposed is a bill backed by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) known as the Intelligence Oversight and Accountability Act of 2013. The act would require the disclosure of any FISC decision to Congress. A similar bill, the “Ending Secret Law Act,” has been proposed by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Todd Rokita (R-Ind.). This would require that FISC discloses any of its case opinions to Congress, and if the attorney general decided these statements could not be released due to national security, it would require a detailed summary of the case.

Obviously, with questions surrounding American security, the discussions on FISA are always hot. But with programs that go beyond constitutional boundaries to get the information to protect us, the real question is: What do we sacrifice when we give the government this breadth of power? Proposed legislation could help find the balance between giving up freedom of speech and staying safe, but opinions are likely to remain varied.

Expect more on this story when the hearing occurs on Sept. 26.  

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