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Nation’s Top Spies Still Mum on How Many Americans They’ve Surveilled

Robyn Greene,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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December 12, 2012

Last month I wrote about how Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has been rebuffed in his multi-year effort to get answers to very basic questions about how the government uses the sweeping authorities granted under the FISA Amendments Act (FISA).

Wyden spearheaded two more letters to the National Security Agency (NSA) Director and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Again, he was denied answers.

Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) wrote to NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, asking him to clarify his recent public statements on FISA that “the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is absolutely false.” Alexander refused to answer whether or how he could be “certain that the number of American communications collected is not ‘millions or hundreds of millions’” when the administration’s official position is that no one knows how many of us have information sitting in NSA files. Instead, he claimed that his statement “did not refer to or address whether it is possible to identify the number of [Americans’] communications that may be lawfully” collected under FISA. He even refused to define his use of the term “dossier.”

Wyden and three other senators also wrote to the DNI, requesting that their questions about the use of American information be answered fully and in unclassified format. The senators want, and believe that Americans have the right, to know: How many Americans’ communications have been collected under FISA – 100, or 100,000, or 100 million? Can or have any entities tried to estimate this number? Have any wholly domestic communications been collected? And has the government used a loophole in the law to conduct warrantless “back-door searches” on Americans’ communications?

Again, the DNI refused to provide a public answer. Instead, DNI Director James Clapper told the senators that their “earlier publicly available letters…properly balance protecting classified information and informing the public of the manner in which [FISA] is implemented…We cannot provide additional answers to your questions in an unclassified format.”

Congress is set to consider a long-term reauthorization of FISA before the end of the year. As Wyden points out, the government’s refusal to disclose even basic information on FISA likely leaves many members of Congress in the dark about the law’s impact on Americans’ privacy. To break down this wall of secrecy and better protect Americans’ rights, a handful of senators are proposing amendments to require disclosure about how FISA is used, and to place reasonable limits on how and when the government can review our private communications.

Join the ACLU in calling for transparency and reform – take our action and tell your member of Congress to Fix FISA.

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