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Former Sen. Wyden staffer: ‘Most members of Congress have not even seen the secret legal interpretations’ behind FISA

By George Chidi
Sunday, August 11, 2013 22:14 EDT
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President Obama’s stated desire for an “open debate and democratic process” about the U.S. government’s surveillance activities met with open disbelief by a prominent former congressional staffer — Jennifer Hoelzer, who recently left service as deputy chief of staff to Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) — after the President’s press conference on Friday.

“Really, Mr. President? Do you really expect me to believe that you give a damn about open debate and the democratic process?” Hoelzer wrote in TechDirt. “Because it seems to me if your Administration was really committed those things, your Administration wouldn’t have blocked every effort to have an open debate on these issues each time the laws that your Administration claims authorizes these programs came up for reauthorization, which — correct me if I am wrong — is when the democratic process recommends as the ideal time for these debates.”

For example, Hoelzer noted that she had been explicitly barred earlier this year from publicly discussing her senator’s reasons for opposing a bill that contained a loophole giving the NSA the apparent authority to run searches on Americans without any kind of warrant. Supporters of the legislation, however, were free to issue press releases touting its value to the public.

Hoelzer noted that the most important interpretation of what laws like like the Patriot Act governing surveillance mean is the official interpretation used by the U.S. government. “This interpretation is actually classified,” she wrote.

Legislators largely have no idea what authority the nation’s spies are actually claiming under the laws they’ve passed, Hoelzer argued.

“Congress and the public are prevented from having an informed, open debate on the Patriot Act because the official meaning of the law itself is secret,” Hoelzer wrote, quoting from a 2009 Huffington Post piece co-written by Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall, How Can Congress Debate a Secret Law? “Most members of Congress have not even seen the secret legal interpretations that the executive branch is currently relying on and do not have any staff who are cleared to read them. Even if these members come down to the Intelligence Committee and read these interpretations themselves, they cannot openly debate them on the floor without violating classification rules.”

Hoelzer had been slated to pen a list of her favorite posts of the week for TechDirt. After hearing Obama’s claim, she reportedly tore up her planned post and spent the evening and most of the night writing the 3400-word broadside, reports of which made the Huffington Post.

 
 
 
 
 
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