Senators Call On Obama For More Transparency In The Intelligence Community

Two senators who scolded the intelligence community for failing to provide a sufficient transparency report are taking their complaints to the White House.

Senators Al Franken and Dean Heller asked President Barack Obama “to support stronger transparency provisions” in a letter Tuesday. The bipartisan pair urged Obama to endorse their proposed additions to the USA FREEDOM Act that would require the intelligence community to disclose estimates of how many people had their information collected, and how many of those people were Americans.

Currently the FREEDOM Act, which has passed through the House but not the Senate, only requires the government to disclose the number of “targets” implicated in surveillance orders. The government’s definition of target is very vague, as noted in our original coverage of the Director of National Intelligence’s first transparency report.

In short, a “target” can be anything from an individual person to an organization composed of millions of individuals. Therefore we have no idea how many people that actually is. Franken said yesterday the report is a “far cry from the kind of transparency that the American people demand and deserve.”

The letter calls the president to commit to more aggressive reforms to the intelligence community’s programs. The Obama administration in the past has vocally supported an end to the bulk telephony metadata collection program under section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, but has been less specific about its transparency goals. Obama called on the intelligence community to be more transparent in his January speech on reforms to the NSA, but he hasn’t come close to support for disclosing transparency reports that would provide specific information about the numbers of individuals affected by intelligence agency sweeps.

If Franken and Heller manage to include stronger surveillance transparency requirements in the FREEDOM Act, companies required to provide information to government intelligence agencies would also be allowed to release reports of how many accounts were affected by government agency searches in a more timely manner and granular fashion.

Currently companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook are subjected to gag orders that limit this right. Although they are now allowed to release transparency reports, the reports are not specific, only identifying the numbers of accounts affected by searches in bands of 1,000.

The senators are on the right track with this push to disclose more information about government surveillance practices. However, this isn’t the first time they’ve tried to pass these reforms. Franken and Heller introduced these reforms as the Surveillance Transparency Act last summer and in the fall, but the bill never advanced after a Judiciary subcommittee debated it in November. 

Franken conditionally threw his support behind the FREEDOM act Monday, saying he would vote against any bill that “undercuts transparency.”