For more than two years, a handful of Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee have warned that the government is secretly interpreting its surveillance powers under the Patriot Act in a way that would be alarming if Congress and the general public knew about it.
Two senators — Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado — have now gone further. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, they say a recent top-secret intelligence operation that is based on the secret legal theory made possible by the Patriot Act is not as crucial to national security as executive branch officials have publicly maintained.
The senators wrote that it was appropriate to keep specific operations secret. But, they said, the government in a democracy must act within publicly understood law so that voters “can ratify or reject decisions made on their behalf” — even if that “obligation to be transparent with the public” creates other challenges.
“In recent months we have grown increasingly skeptical about the actual value of the ‘intelligence collection operation,’ ” they added. “This has come as a surprise to us, as we were initially inclined to take the executive branch’s assertions about the importance of this ‘operation’ at face value.”
The letter from Wyden and Udall also complained that while the Obama administration told Congress in August 2009 that it would establish “a regular process for reviewing, redacting and releasing significant opinions” of the secret court, since then “not a single redacted opinion has been released.”