The U.S. government's most secret class of Internet spying, telephone wiretaps and physical searches would become slightly less secret under legislation proposed this week reflecting lawmakers' growing unease with the Justice Department's use of expanded surveillance powers.
The Surveillance Oversight and Disclosure Act (SODA) introduced in the House of Representatives would require the DoJ to publish an annual report counting and categorizing the number of surveillance orders issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in the previous year.
The report would break down the number of FISA orders targeting U.S. citizens and non-citizens in each of four categories: bugs and wiretaps, covert physical searches, e-mail header interception, and access to stored records. Current law requires the department to reveal only the grand total: 1,228 last year.
Unlike conventional court-authorized surveillance, the existence of a FISA order is never revealed to the target -- even years or decades later -- unless he or she is ultimately charged with a crime. Orders are issued by a special court convened within Justice Department headquarters in Washington D.C.
The USA-PATRIOT Act made such orders easier to get by permitting the government to use FISA in cases where foreign intelligence gathering is "a significant purpose" of the spying, instead of the only purpose.
Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel (D-PA) introduced SODA Wednesday with 16 co-sponsors. In a statement, Hoeffel said he still supports USA-PATRIOT, for which he voted, but believes the Justice Department has been too secretive in revealing how it's used the added spying powers.
"The Department of Justice, and Attorney General Ashcroft in particular, have been extremely reluctant and slow to provide information to Congress or to the public about the use of the new authority they have under the PATRIOT Act," Hoeffel said. "There has been too much secrecy and too much 'trust me' rhetoric from the Attorney General. He and the Justice Department should have to report to Congress and the American people on their activities under this legislation."
SODA would also require the Justice Department to issue a semi-annual report to congressional intelligence committees on requests made for records from public or school libraries. The bill is modeled on legislation introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in the Senate last February, and comes scarcely a week after attorney general John Ashcroft began lobbying lawmakers for a sequel to USA-PATRIOT.
Testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee last week, Ashcroft said the law has played a crucial role on battling terror. "Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the PATRIOT Act," said Ashcroft. "It has been the key weapon used across America in successful counter-terrorist operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists."