Bipartisan Senate Duo Pressures Obama for Real Surveillance Reform


White House

Republicans and Democrats can't agree on much, but two of them just came together to pressure President Barack Obama to support greater transparency in surveillance reform, goading him to do so both "formally and publicly."

Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who is the chair of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) yesterday published a letter to the president explaining, "We fear that unless stronger transparency provisions are included in the USA Freedom Act, the American public will have no way to know if the government is following through on… end[ing] bulk collection of Americans' phone call records, along with prohibiting bulk collection under several other authorities." A watered-down version of the bill passed somewhat controversially through the House in May. The duo suggests three ingredients they think are necessary for "any … surveillance reform bill" to be meaningful:

  • Provisions requiring the American government to release annual estimates of the number of individuals and Americans that have had their information collected, and ideally also how many Americans have had their information reviewed; 
  • Provisions allowing companies to disclose more information about government requests for their customers' information in a more timely manner than provided for in the House bill; and 
  • Avoiding any reporting requirement or disclosure provision allowing disclosure only in terms of "targets" instead of total individuals affected.
U.S. Govt

Shortly before the House voted on their version of it, the bill was defanged to the dismay of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and advocates. Despite being a co-sponsor, Rep. Justin Amash voted against it, decrying that the changed "bill maintains and codifies a large-scale, unconstitutional domestic spying program. It claims to end 'bulk collection' of Americans' data only in a very technical sense."

Ostensibly, the president supports the end of bulk collection, but David Kravets of Ars Technica suggested at the time of the House vote that "the Obama administration pressured the Republican leadership to water it down." The Hill's Kate Tummarrello laid blame equally on the GOP and the president.

Franken and Heller are turning up the heat on Obama in anticipation of the Freedom Act's consideration by the Senate, which they say will happen "soon."

In a separate release this week, Franken expressed support for the current Senate version of the bill, but warned that he will vote against it if changes are made that "undercut transparency, or that undercuts any of the other oversight and accountability provisions that are necessary for a successful surveillance reform effort."