Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska is cosponsoring a bill that would end secret interpretations of the Patriot Act, which enabled the National Security Agency to collect billions of phone records from Americans.
The Democratic senator reflects others’ views in Alaska’s Washington delegation: Lawmakers are demanding more transparency and congressional oversight on government surveillance, though they won’t say the programs need to be shut down or that Congress should repeal the Patriot Act.
“I have repeatedly called for a better balance between protecting our safety and protecting our constitutional rights – that’s why I’ve cosponsored a bill to end secret law and to bring greater transparency and accountability in our government,” Begich said.
The bill would require the attorney general to declassify significant opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which can secretly authorize surveillance requests both in and outside the United States. The bill wouldn’t require all opinions to be declassified, but any sweeping legal implications of the court’s decisions would have to be disclosed to the public.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has been highly critical of the Obama administration’s surveillance policies, but expressed concern with the measure.
“While I appreciate and understand the reason for the legislation, when you take a long-term view the prospects are worrisome,” she said. “Much of these classified documents would need to be redacted, so all the black blots will only heighten the public’s distrust.”
Begich and Murkowski also signed a letter to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board requesting that it make investigating the PRISM program and the NSA’s collection of phone records an “urgent priority.” They asked the board to provide an unclassified report to open those issues to further public debate.
Murkowski voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act in 2006. However, before it was reauthorized she introduced an amendment that would have required increased transparency on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s orders, as well as limited what constitutes domestic terrorism – ensuring the Patriot Act couldn’t be used in cases of civil disobedience. The amendment did not pass.
Murkowski and Begich voted against the five-year extension of the law that allows the government to wiretap without a warrant, as the NSA is doing, in 2012. That law passed 73-23 in the Senate.
“Giving up some privacy for some security has never made Alaskans comfortable,” Murkowski said in 2012.
She echoed that sentiment this week.
“The government has no business snooping around our property, our library books, our phone calls or e-mails,” she said. “Call it data mining, call it 21st century surveillance – but Alaskans look at this and see a fishing expedition where the government is casting a big net involving millions of innocent, law-abiding Americans and hoping they catch bad guys.”
Murkowski joined the Senate in 2002 after the resignation of her father, Sen. Frank Murkowski, who’d voted to authorize the Patriot Act in 2001. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, did not vote when Congress was originally debating the Patriot Act, and he voted against its reauthorization. Begich didn’t join Congress until 2009, so he voted on neither.
“I voted against extending key parts of the Patriot Act because I believe certain authorities granted by the act are too broad and could be abused by government personnel, as we are now seeing,” Young said. “Going forward, I expect numerous and thorough oversight hearings from my colleagues in the House.”
The Alaska Constitution, unlike the U.S. Constitution, specifically grants its citizens the right to privacy, saying, “The right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly said that Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, had voted to authorize the Patriot Act in 2001. Murkowski wasn’t yet in the Senate at that time.