A bipartisan group of eight prominent US senators announced a new bill today to declassify the court opinions that give the US National Security Agency the legal power to carry out the sweeping internet surveillance program known as PRISM and the separate phone records surveillance program, both revealed last week by leaked documents. “Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law," said Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the architect of the bill, a version of which he originally introduced last December, but which failed to gain traction at the time.

Takes aim at the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

Now that surveillance is back in the news in a big way, Merkley is trying again to pass his bill, getting the backing of seven of his colleagues, including prominent privacy-advocating Senators Al Franken (D-MN), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Republican Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dean Heller (R-NV) are also endorsing the bill. The bill specifically targets the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the secret legal system set up in 1978 that issues classified orders requiring companies to hand over information as part of investigations into foreign threats, including suspected terrorist plotters.

The NSA last week released a statement saying that its PRISM internet surveillance program was legal under FISC orders issued under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the same law that created this court system. The NSA also claims that its separate surveillance program on phone caller data is also legal thanks to FISC orders issued under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. However, most of the FISC court opinions behind both of these programs are classified until far in the future — the public only found out about the NSA's phone data surveillance of Verizon customers last week when The Guardian published a leaked FISC Section 215 court order well ahead of its declassification date of 2038. Merkley's bill would require the government to declassify these court opinions now, not far in the future. But getting the rest of Congress to back the bill may still prove challenging, given that other lawmakers have come out in support of these NSA surveillance efforts, and that Congress repeatedly authorized them.