Joining forces with a group of privacy organizations and former White House officials, four House Democrats sent a letter to President Barack Obama over the weekend urging him to declassify all legal opinions and interpretations involving a controversial executive order used to justify government surveillance.
Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), Alan Grayson (Fla.), Rush Holt (N.J.) and Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) contend in the letter that Obama should work to enhance privacy protection damaged by Executive Order 12333, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan to expand the government’s data-collection authority and later amended by President George W. Bush.
“We call on the President to declassify and make public all current and future legal opinions or interpretations concerning surveillance under Executive Order 12333 and the surveillance-related regulations issued thereunder,” the letter states. “Secret law is a threat to democracy.
“We further call on the President to ensure that there is no disproportionate or unnecessary collection or retention of users’ communications and personal information and to implement meaningful privacy protections for all users, U.S. and foreign, in surveillance activities conducted under E.O. 12333, including the privacy recommendations of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.”
Executive Order 12333 gives the National Security Agency the power to sweep up emails, online messages and other digital communications from people abroad. While the presidential order isn’t intended to authorize domestic surveillance, American citizens’ communications can be “incidentally” obtained (and possibly stored for later use) as agents investigate people outside of the country.
John Tye, a former State Department official who also signed the letter, explained the potential for 12333 abuses thusly in a recent interview with Ars Technica: “In theory the NSA could have a single legitimate foreign target that’s using Gmail, Yahoo, Dropbox, iMessage, Skype—and ‘incidental collection’ means that could mean that every person’s data from all of those services is swept up and stored—billions of people. I know that sounds crazy but that’s how the executive order works. The targeting is not a meaningful constraint on NSA collection.”