Skip to main content

We need transparency on domestic surveillance

By Al Franken, Special to CNN
updated 11:41 AM EDT, Tue July 23, 2013
Demonstrators gathered in Washington last month to protest the National Security Agency domestic spying programs.
Demonstrators gathered in Washington last month to protest the National Security Agency domestic spying programs.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Al Franken: Americans don't know scope of surveillance and which authority OKs it
  • Franken: We need a balance between protecting U.S. from terror and protecting privacy
  • We can't know if civil liberties are safe if all about surveillance is secret, he says
  • Franken: We need to know who, when and how, to judge if surveillance crosses a line

Editor's note: Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate and is a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.

(CNN) -- Last month, when Edward Snowden began leaking highly classified documents to the press, many Americans were shocked by what they read.

I don't blame them. For years, the architecture of the programs designed to keep us safe have been a secret to all but a few members of the intelligence community and select legislators. The companies that were involved in these programs were under strict gag orders. And while members of Congress had the opportunity to be briefed on these programs, it would have been a crime, literally, for us to have talked about them publicly.

As a result, when Snowden's leaks became public, Americans had no way of knowing the scope of these programs, their privacy protections and the legal authorities they were operating under. It was just Snowden and his documents on the one side and the government on the other, saying "trust us."

Al Franken
Al Franken

The government must give proper weight to both keeping America safe from terrorists and protecting Americans' privacy. But when Americans lack the most basic information about our domestic surveillance programs, they have no way of knowing whether we're getting that balance right. This lack of transparency is a big problem.

Ex-CIA chief: What Snowden did

Since I came to the Senate, I've been working to fix this. I've supported amendments to the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that would have required greater public reporting on the use of surveillance authorities and greater disclosures about the legal opinions and safeguards that support them. When those amendments failed, I voted against renewing both of these laws.

I want to be clear: I didn't vote "no" because I wanted to end these programs or because I thought they were unnecessary. Based on briefings, I believe these programs protect our country and have saved lives and have reasonable safeguards in place to protect Americans' privacy. I voted the way I did because I wanted to send a loud signal to my colleagues that transparency was critical and that there was too little of it in place. National security laws must protect national security. But they must also protect the public trust and preserve the ability of an informed electorate to hold its government to account.

I'm working on legislation that will require the federal government to annually report how it uses key authorities under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including the authorities underlying the phone metadata and the PRISM electronic surveillance programs that recently came to light. For each of these authorities, the government must disclose how many Americans' information is being collected and how many Americans' information is being queried and actually seen by federal officers or agents.

ACLU, gov't reps debate NSA programs
Alexander defends secrecy around NSA program
The NSA's secret court

My legislation would also allow companies to publicly report on how many Patriot and FISA orders they're getting and how many of their customers these orders affect. There's a way to do this that protects national security. Since 2009, Google has been reporting on the number of national security letters it receives, and that hasn't hurt anyone. I frankly think that after Snowden's disclosures, an even stronger case can be made that we can achieve greater transparency without harming national security.

Opinion: Supreme Court must protect our privacy from the government

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, a big part of my job is making sure that our privacy laws are keeping up with our technology. In 1787, there was no such thing as a phone, let alone a wiretap. And so, almost 50 years ago in a case called Katz v. U.S., the Supreme Court had to determine whether a wiretap constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. The court said that it did. Justices explained that people had come to expect and assume that their calls were private. In subsequent cases, the court formally adopted the rule that the Fourth Amendment will protect people where they have an expectation of privacy that society recognizes as reasonable.

In 2013, we're long overdue for another public conversation about what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy. It's hard to have that debate around secret programs authorized by secret legal opinions issued by a secret court. Actually, it's impossible to have that debate.

Thankfully, public pressure for transparency is building. Last week, a broad coalition of 63 companies and civil society groups -- from Apple to the ACLU -- sent a letter to the president and congressional leaders calling for the reforms put forward in my bill. I think we can pass it.

Ultimately, I suspect that with this information out there, many Americans will come to believe that these programs have reasonable safeguards for our civil liberties. Others will still call for their end or dramatic restructuring. I want to let Americans decide for themselves.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sen. Al Franken.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 6:41 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
updated 11:49 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
updated 12:59 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
updated 1:49 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
updated 7:33 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
updated 2:14 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
updated 11:26 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
updated 6:01 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
updated 2:24 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT