Amendment Requires Government to End Practice of Secretly Interpreting Law
Washington, D.C. – As the Senate prepares to approve a four-year extension of the Patriot Act without public debate about how the executive branch actually interprets controversial provisions in the ten-year-old surveillance law, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Co.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced an amendment to the Patriot Act reauthorization legislation to require the U.S. Attorney General to make the U.S. Government’s official interpretation of the law public.
The amendment also states that it is the “Sense of the Congress” that government officials “should not secretly reinterpret public laws and statutes in a manner that is inconsistent with the public’s understanding of these laws and should not describe the execution of these laws in ways that misinforms or misleads the public.”
The official interpretation of the Patriot Act – a bill that was hastily drafted in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and is up for extension this week after little debate and no opportunity to amend it – has been kept classified by government officials for nearly a decade.
“It is essential for the American public to have access to enough information to determine how government officials are interpreting the law,” the amendment reads, “so that voters can ratify or reject decisions that elected officials make on their behalf. It is essential that Congress have informed and open debates about the meaning of existing laws so that members of Congress are able to consider whether laws are written appropriately and so that members of Congress may be held accountable by their constituents.”
The full text of the amendment is below:
Purpose: To require the Attorney General to publicly disclose the United States Government’s official interpretation of the USA PATRIOT Act.
IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES—112th Cong., 1st Sess.
To extend expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 until June 1, 2015, and for other purposes. Referred to the Committee on llllllllll and ordered to be printed
Ordered to lie on the table and to be printed AMENDMENT intended to be proposed by Mr. WYDEN (for himself and Mr. UDALL of Colorado)
At the end, add the following: SEC. 3. REPORT ON INTELLIGENCE COLLECTION ACTIVITIES.
(a) SENSE OF CONGRESS.—It is the sense of Congress that—
(1) in democratic societies, citizens rightly expect that their government will not arbitrarily keep information secret from the public but instead will act with secrecy only in certain limited circumstances;
(2) the United States Government has an inherent responsibility to protect American citizens from foreign threats and sometimes relies on clandestine methods to learn information about foreign adversaries, and these intelligence collection methods are often most effective when they remain secret;
(3) American citizens recognize that their government may rely on secret intelligence sources and collection methods to ensure national security and public safety, and American citizens also expect intelligence activities to be conducted within the boundaries of publicly understood law; it is essential for the American public to have access to enough information to determine how government officials are interpreting the law, so that voters can ratify or reject decisions that elected officials make on their behalf;
(5) it is essential that Congress have informed and open debates about the meaning of existing laws, so that members of Congress are able to consider whether laws are written appropriately, and so that members of Congress may be held accountable by their constituents;
(6) United States Government officials should not secretly reinterpret public laws and statutes in a manner that is inconsistent with the public’s understanding of these laws, and should not describe the execution of these laws in a way that misinforms or misleads the public;
(7) On February 2, 2011, the congressional intelligence committees received a secret report from the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence that has been publicly described as pertaining to intelligence collection authorities that are subject to expiration under section 224 of the USA PATRIOT Act (Public Law 107–56; 115 Stat. 295); and
(8) while it is entirely appropriate for particular intelligence collection techniques to be kept secret, the laws that authorize such techniques, and the United States Government’s official interpretation of these laws, should not be kept secret but should instead be transparent to the public, so that these laws can be the subject of informed public debate and consideration.
(b) REPORT.—Not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Attorney General shall publish in the Federal Register a report—
(1) that details the legal basis for the intelligence collection activities described in the February 2, 2011, report to the congressional intelligence committees; and
(2) that does not describe specific intelligence collection programs or activities, but that fully describes the legal interpretations and analysis necessary to understand the United States Government’s official interpretation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1801 et 9 seq.).