WASHINGTON – At a hearing convened by U.S. Sen. Al Franken Wednesday, Obama Administration officials defended keeping secret the details of government electronic surveillance programs.
The hearing examined the executive branch and industry’s response to a bill introduced by Franken that would require the government to issue more detailed reports about surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency and other government agencies. The bill would also allow companies such as Google and Facebook to reveal how many requests the government has made for their users data, information that currently is classified.
“Americans don’t know the actual number of people whose information has been collected under those programs,” said Franken, a Democrat. “They don’t know how many of those people are Americans, and they have no way of knowing how many of those Americans have had their information actually seen by government officials as opposed to just being held in a database.”
Robert Litt, general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said secret programs would be compromised by more detailed reports to the public and argued that existing oversight of those programs was sufficient to protect Americans’ civil liberties.
“We operate within the laws authorized by Congress, we operate with extensive oversight from all three branches of government. They’re highly regulated and highly checked,” Litt said.
Franken and tech industry representatives argued that American companies were losing business to foreign competitors as overseas clients have learned more about the surveillance programs and decided to keep their data outside of American jurisdiction.
Richard Salgado, the director of law enforcement and information security at Google, was asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., whether he could reveal how many requests the company had received under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Salgado responded that the law did not permit him to share that information. Leahy asked whether the country was safer as a result of that information being kept secret.
“I can’t imagine the country is safer as a result of that,” responded Salgado.
It’s not clear if or when Franken’s bill will get a vote in the Senate.