Disclosure of NSA Surveillance Programs Underscores Need for Increased Transparency of National Security Activities

As more facts come to light about the massive, ongoing surveillance affecting millions of Americans, it is imperative that the government bring greater transparency and accountability to national security programs. We need a new national debate about personal privacy and security and where we as a country will draw the line.

Last week, Edward Snowden, who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as an intelligence and defense contractor, leaked classified documents to the media exposing surveillance programs at the National Security Agency (NSA) that included extensive collection of information about Americans' communications and Internet use. Among the documents was an order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court for Verizon to turn over millions of phone records to the NSA. Another leak detailed the NSA's gathering of customer data from major Internet companies, including Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.

In both cases, the FISA Court had apparently authorized the NSA to collect the information. However, there are larger questions about whether the activities were ethical, constitutional, and adherent to human rights obligations – and whether our country really wants officials to have such authority.

Secret laws and programs are inherently antithetical to democracy. This surveillance program is part of larger pattern of using national security as an excuse to avoid public scrutiny and oversight of domestic intelligence gathering activities. As we recommended in our review of open government during the Obama administration’s first term, the president should end the use of secret laws and require public disclosure of all operative legal analysis, operational guidance, and rules currently in place. This disclosure, while difficult and likely uncomfortable for security and intelligence agencies, is necessary for the American public to fully understand the scope of activities being conducted and decide if they wish to support such programs or demand changes. The White House says it welcomes that debate; those words must now be accompanied by action to enable greater transparency and oversight.

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