Senators push bill to declassify FISA court rulings

A bipartisan group of lawmakers want Eric Holder to reveal court opinions authorizing NSA surveillance programs

Published June 11, 2013 4:22PM (EDT)

A bipartisan group of senators is pushing a bill to declassify secret court opinions written by the FISA court, which authorizes NSA surveillance programs like PRISM.

The senators, including Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tea Party favorite Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, called for an end to the "secret law," introducing legislation that would require Attorney General Eric Holder to declassify rulings made by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes domestic intelligence operations under FISA and the Patriot Act. The court is staffed by 11 federal district court judges, who are appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and serve on a rotating basis.

“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Merkley said in a statement. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies.  We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”

“It will help ensure that the government makes sensitive decisions related to surveillance by applying legal standards that are known to the public. Particularly where our civil liberties are at stake, we must demand no less of our government," said Lee.

In the statement, the senators wrote that the legislation would include provisions to protect national security:

This legislation would accommodate national security concerns. If the Attorney General determines that a Court opinion cannot be declassified without undermining national security interests, then the Attorney General can declassify a summary of the opinion. If the Attorney General determines that even a summary of an opinion would undermine national security, the Attorney General is required to provide a report to Congress describing the process to be implemented to declassify FISA Court opinions including an estimate of the number of opinions that will be declassified and the number that are expected to be withheld because of national security concerns.

Also co-sponsoring the legislation were Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Dean Heller, R-Nev., Mark Begich, D-Ark., Al Franken, D-Minn., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

h/t The Hill.

By Jillian Rayfield

Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. Follow her on Twitter at @jillrayfield or email her at

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Fisa Jeff Merkley Nsa Prism Ron Wyden Surveillance