A coalition of organizations that support open government, press freedom and civil liberties have sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to make the laws that govern surveillance by the National Security Agency public. The letter, which I’ve published in full below, asks the constitutional law professor living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to support a core principle of democratic governance that hails back (at least as far as) the 12 Tables posted in the Roman Forum: the people should be able to read the laws under which they are governed. The letter was sent to the White House on the eve of the second annual conference of the Open Government Partnership.
October 21, 2013
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
On behalf of citizens who support an open and accountable government, we are writing to urge you to pledge as part of the US’s new round of Open Government Partnership commitments to curb the secret law that enabled the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs to become much broader and more invasive than it was believed the law allowed.
Secret legal interpretations by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court allowed the NSA’s surveillance programs to grow in ways that raise serious concerns about what the government is doing in our name and the extent of violations of American’s privacy and civil liberties. Documents released to the media about the NSA’s programs further raise critical questions about the scope of the US’s activities abroad, leading the President of Brazil and others to question whether the US’s programs breach international law.
This is not the first time that abuses of power have occurred when a government program operates in a bubble of secrecy with only limited oversight: similarly, Americans were outraged to learn that memos authored by the OLC during the Bush Administration approved interrogation methods that many equate to torture. Your release of these memos demonstrated a respect for the public’s right to know how the government interprets the law. Making a concrete commitment to the public’s right to legal interpretations on issues including the intelligence community’s surveillance programs and other controversial policies like targeted killing through the use of drones or other means would make this respect part of the administration’s legacy. While the government has an obligation to protect properly and appropriately classified information, democracy does not thrive when our national security programs and the intelligence community’s actions are shrouded in secrecy. The public must, at the very least, have a shared understanding of the bounds and limits of the laws of our land and be able to have an informed debate about our policies.
During the meeting of the Open Government Partnership in London, you have a unique opportunity to address this issue head-on on an international stage. By committing to give the public access to documents that significantly interpret laws, including – but not limited to—the Department of Justice’s legal interpretations and opinions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), you can both address domestic concerns about our surveillance programs, and begin to rebuild trust with our international partners.
Thank you in advance for your attention to this issue of critical importance to transparent and accountable government. To discuss these issues in greater detail, please contact Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-332- 6736.
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression American Civil Liberties Union
American Library Association
American Society of News Editors
Arab American Institute
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Brechner Center for Freedom of Information
Center for Democracy and Technology
Center for Effective Government
Center for Media and Democracy
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington – CREW The Constitution Project
Council on American-Islamic Relations – CAIR
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Privacy Information Center – EPIC
Federation of American Scientists
First Amendment Foundation
Government Accountability Project – GAP
Human Right Watch
James Madison Project
Just Foreign Policy
National Coalition Against Censorship
National Freedom of Information Coalition National Security Archive
No More Guantanamos
Project On Government Oversight – POGO
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Reporters Without Borders
Society of Professional Journalists
Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University Understanding Government
Vermont Coalition for Open Government
Vermont Press Association
Washington Civil Rights Council
Win Without War