By: Malia Rulon Herman
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana is among a bipartisan group of eight senators who say the government should have to declassify information explaining why it has the right to spy on Americans.
The group has introduced legislation to do that in response to news reports that the National Security Agency conducted a secret surveillance program on Americans' telephone and Internet records.
The legislation would require, for the first time, a public airing of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions regarding the Patriot Act, which the government says gave it the right to conduct the surveillance program.
"We must find the right balance between protecting our nation and protecting the civil liberties that make America the greatest country in the world," Tester said in a news release.
Details about the NSA program - leaked to the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper in England - has kicked off a national debate about privacy and national security. "I think what we're doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing," Gen. Keith Alexander, NSA's director, told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
"Time and time again, Congress extends the Patriot Act without properly considering the law's impact on Americans' civil liberties," he said when news first broke of the surveillance. "While we must keep our families safe, I have many questions about the scope of this program and how it affects lawabiding citizens."
Other co-sponsors of the bill include Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Mike Lee, R-Utah; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Dean Heller, R-Nev.; Mark Begich, D-Alaska; Al Franken, D-Minn.; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana also has spoken out the NSA's surveillance program. Both Baucus and Tester voted in 2012 to end the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), under which the surveillance is allowed.
"This type of intrusion on law-abiding Americans is exactly why I voted to get rid of the secret surveillance program," Baucus said. "Everyone wants to do their part to keep America safe, but that doesn't give the government free rein to ignore civil liberties."
Baucus said he has "very serious concerns" about law-abiding citizens getting swept up in surveillance meant to uncover terrorists.
"If the government really needs this type of information to keep the country safe, they ought to be able to make their case in an open and transparent courtroom instead of behind closed doors," he said.
Both Tester and Baucus said Wednesday that the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board should investigate the NSA program. In a letter to the board, Montana's two senators also asked that the panel release an unclassified report of its findings.
Members of the House were briefed on the surveillance program Tuesday evening.
Republican Rep. Steve Daines, who attended the briefing, said reports of the NSA surveillance were "deeply concerning."
"I will demand answers from the administration on the nature of this program and fight to ensure that the Fourth Amendment protections of the American people are fully upheld," he said.