"Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it's allowed to take under the law," Merkley said. "There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies."
Their legislation would require the attorney general to publicly release the opinions of FISA courts as long as doing so wouldn't undermine national security interests. The attorney general could release summaries of cases in which the opinions include sensitive information. And in instances in which the attorney general doesn't think even a summary is possible, he or she would be required to make a report to Congress.
Lee said the bill is necessary because "it will help ensure that the government makes sensitive decisions related to surveillance by applying legal standards that are known to the public. Particularly where our civil liberties are at stake, we must demand no less of our government."
Since he joined the Senate in 2011, Lee has fought against an intelligence apparatus he believes has too much autonomy and power. He has questioned its impact on privacy and the legal justification for the programs.
He voted against the reauthorization of FISA last year, while Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a former member of the Intelligence Committee, and the state's three House members at the time supported it.
President Barack Obama and the bipartisan leaders of intelligence committees argue that NSA programs have helped the government thwart terrorist attacks and are implemented with appropriate constitutional safeguards.
A security contractor worried about the growth in the programs leaked classified records to the Guardian and The Washington Post showing the NSA, with the permission of FISA courts, is collecting data on all phone calls through major carriers. That information includes the phone number, location and duration of the calls. The agency is not listening to the content of all calls.
Another program, called PRISM, allows the agency to probe the Web activity of people it suspects to be foreigners who pose a threat to the United States. That reportedly includes watching Web chats or even messages as they are being typed. The NSA says it incidentally gains access to some information on Americans but attempts to narrowly focus its efforts on foreigners.
Some of the massive data collected in these programs may eventually be stored in Utah when a new 1-million-square-foot NSA data center opens later this year.
Other sponsors of the Merkley-Lee bill include Sens. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., among others.