NSA won’t say how many of your emails it has read

The FISA Amendments Act (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), a law that allows the NSA wide latitude in domestic espionage, is up for renewal this year, and Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) are attempting to get the Obama administration to say exactly how many emails have been read by the NSA. Apparently this number is a matter of national security.

In fact, the Obama administration is arguing that even a rough estimate of the communications spied upon by the NSA “would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.” Yes, the NSA recently said that: it would violate our privacy if the NSA said how many people have been subjected to spying.

Wyden and Udall want to end this practice of “back door searches” that allow the NSA to read emails and listen in on phone calls without a warrant. Naturally, the NSA isn’t saying anything out of self-preservation, and Obama (who voted for the FISA amendments) hasn’t even flinched at his continuation of the U.S. government’s most important operating principle: secrecy.

As EFF noted, the House of Representatives—controlled by the GOP—has done nothing to force transparency on the NSA’s FISA powers. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) submitted an amendment that would require the NSA to reveal an “estimate” of how many emails have been read without a warrant. Jackson-Lee’s amendment was rejected. The House Judiciary Committee also rejected an amendment that would have required the NSA to make available classified, redacted FISA rulings and shorter FISA reauthorization periods.

Wyden, quite rightly, put a “hold” on the Senate bill reauthorizing the FISA amendments, so that their renewal is at least temporarily blocked. Hopefully Wyden’s maneuver will force some more open debate on the issue.