By Senator Chris Coons
News stories this week reporting on two alleged aspects of the U.S. government's extensive digital surveillance of American citizens have shined a light on intelligence-gathering practices that have not received the public scrutiny they deserve. These surveillance programs were permitted under judicial orders that have been deemed classified by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, preventing the kinds of public oversight required for traditional domestic surveillance.
Protection from an intrusive government has always been a central thread of our democracy, but as Americans, the choice between liberty and safety is not a choice between one or the other -- we expect both, and I believe both are possible with thoughtful public scrutiny and meaningful Congressional oversight.
Today, email traffic between American citizens comes through the same servers and networks as traffic between foreign nationals, and it's getting harder and harder to distinguish between them. This is a daily challenge for an intelligence community charged with keeping us safe from those who would do us harm, and for a Congress forced to consider whether those efforts unduly infringe on the privacy of those who are not a threat.
Congress, however, is failing to be an effective check of these activities.
In December, I voted against the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act explicitly because of its lack of safeguards for Americans' privacy. Instead of making modest and reasonable changes to this law to increase public accountability, Congress abdicated its responsibility and reauthorized the law without changes. I voted against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act almost a year and a half prior for similar reasons.
Congress has a responsibility to ensure these surveillance programs are run in a manner that is transparent and accountable. The intelligence community should provide the public with specifics on the full breadth of information that has been captured under the FISA Amendments Act, and what it is doing with that information. The administration should also establish a framework for declassifying FISA court opinions about warrantless wiretapping activities performed under this law. I voted for amendments that would have accomplished both.
Delawareans deserve a full and informed debate about our nation's intelligence-gathering procedures and their intrusion on our privacy rights, as well as a Congress that insists on keeping our nation safe and respects our most cherished privacy protections.