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Senators Want to Restore and Improve Transparency in USA Freedom Act

by Carl Wicklander, published

A bipartisan team of U.S. Senators is hoping legislation can eventually gain the support of President Barack Obama and curb some of the powers of the National Security Agency (NSA).

Originally sponsored by U.S. Senators Al Franken and Dean Heller as part of their Surveillance Transparency Act, these lawmakers believe the measures can benefit the USA Freedom Act. According to a press release, an amended USA Freedom Act would:

"Force the government to release the number of Americans who have had their information not only collected under these surveillance programs, but also reviewed. They would also give companies greater flexibility to tell their customers approximately how many of them were caught up in government surveillance requests."

Reminding President Obama of his promise to end bulk data collection, Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, and Heller, a Nevada Republican, wrote a public letter to the president last week laying out their suggestions. The Senators said the proposed provisions would:

"Give the American people the information they need to reach an informed opinion about surveillance programs and hold the American government accountable."

Introduced by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the USA Freedom Act was originally designed to restore transparency to the process of monitoring suspected American enemies. Many privacy advocates had high hopes for the act.

However, the version that passed the U.S. House was considered watered down to the point that even an original cosponsor, Justin Amash (R-Mich.), voted against it.

The incentive for passing more specific transparency regulations may have become evident in light of recent revelations.

A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed the estimated number of people targeted by surveillance agencies. However, the report did not reveal the total number of people who had data collected nor how many of those people were American.

Also, a recently uncovered 2010 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order revealed that a judge gave more extensive power to the NSA than previously thought.

According to the Washington Post, approximately 90 percent of the data collected by the NSA was from people who were not the intended targets. Administration officials have said that even though the communications of ordinary Internet users are routinely caught in sweeps, those communications get filtered out if they hold no intelligence value.

To explain how these powers can be ambiguous and subject to expansive interpretation, Barton Gellman and Ellen Nakashima write:

"Language could allow for surveillance of academics, journalists and human rights researchers. A Swiss academic who has information on the German government's position in the run-up to an international trade negotiation, for instance, could be targeted if the government has determined there is a foreign-intelligence need for that information."

Debate in the U.S. Senate over the USA Freedom Act is expected to begin sometime this summer. Yet, the most recent revelations about the scope and authority of surveillance may lead to further discussion about its impact on civil liberties within the context of national security.

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