“Contrary to core principles of American democracy.” That’s how two U.S. senators describe the Justice Department’s refusal to release a secret legal interpretation of the Patriot Act.
Last year, we filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for records about the government’s use and interpretation of one of the Patriot Act’s most controversial provisions: Section 215. Some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee had suggested that the provision was being abused. “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act,” Colorado Sen. Mark Udall said, “they will be stunned and they will be angry.”
Our FOIA request was an effort to uncover more information about the way that the Justice Department has interpreted the statute, and the way that the FBI is using it. Because the Justice Department hasn’t produced any records in response to our request, we filed suit in October, 10 years to the day after President Bush signed the Patriot Act into law. We’ll file our opening brief in that case later this month.
This afternoon, Sen. Udall and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden sent a letter to the attorney general commenting on our lawsuit and on a related but narrower FOIA suit filed by The New York Times. The letter is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a particularly crucial passage:
It is a matter of public record that section 215, which is a public statute, has been the subject of secret legal interpretations. The existence of these interpretations, which are contained in classified opinions issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (or “FISA Court”) has been acknowledged on multiple occasions by the Justice Department and other executive branch officials.
We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.
As we have said before, we believe that it is entirely legitimate for government agencies to keep certain information secret. Americans acknowledge that their government can better protect national security if it is sometimes allowed to operate in secrecy and as such, they do not expect the Obama Administration to publish every detail about how intelligence is collected any more than early Americans expected George Washington to tell them his plans for observing troop movements at Yorktown. However, in a democratic society — in which the government derives its power from the consent of the people — citizens rightly expect that their government will not arbitrarily keep information from them. Americans expect their government to operate within the boundaries of publicly-understood law, and as voters they have a need and a right to know how the law is being interpreted, so that they can ratify or reject decisions made on their behalf. To put it another way, Americans know that their government will sometimes conduct secret operations, but they don’t think that government officials should be writing secret law.
This isn’t the first time the ACLU has sought information about the government’s use of this provision. Back in 2002, we filed a FOIA suit that eventually resulted in the release of a few hundred documents — including this, this, and this. But now the FBI is using Section 215 much more aggressively. It’s using it more often. And statements by Obama administration officials raise the distinct possibility that the government is using the provision to support entire surveillance programs.
As Wyden and Udall say, the secrecy surrounding the government’s use of new surveillance powers is unwarranted and fundamentally antidemocratic. The public should know, at least in general terms, how the government interprets its surveillance authority and how that authority is being used.