By Greg Campbell
Congress has voted to approve a five-year extension on existing authority for the government to monitor electronic communications of citizens and foreigners abroad. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was set to expire at year’s end, but the Senate voted to renew the controversial act for another five years with a vote of 73-23. The bill now heads to President Obama, who is expected to sign it.
The program is classified, but what is known about the program has been controversial as it allows warrantless surveillance of “targets” of investigations. According to columnist David Kravets,
“The FISA Amendments Act generally requires the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, a secret tribunal set up in the wake of President Richard M. Nixon-era eavesdropping, to rubber-stamp terror-related electronic surveillance requests. The government does not have to identify the target or facility to be monitored. It can begin surveillance a week before making the request, and the surveillance can continue during the appeals process if, in a rare case, the secret FISA court rejects the surveillance application.”
While the far-reaching implications of the powers afforded to the government seem disconcerting, the truth is the secretive nature of the proposed renewal is even moreso. Since the program is classified, much is not known about the powers afforded to government.
Both Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have cited concerns and offered amendments to create greater transparency as conservative Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has done similarly.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy-rights organization, explained the dangers of the act:
“The FISA Amendments Act continues to be controversial; key portions of it were challenged in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. In brief, the law allows the government to get secret FISA court orders—orders that do not require probable cause like regular warrants—for any emails or phone calls going to and from overseas. The communications only have to deal with ‘foreign intelligence information,’ a broad term that can mean virtually anything. And one secret FISA order can be issued against groups or categories of people—potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of Americans at once.”
“The FISA Amendments Act makes a joke of the entire Fourth Amendment ‘warrant’ requirement, as the government now can seek ‘programmatic warrants’ that allow them to indiscriminately collect massive amounts of data from broadly defined ‘targets’ over the course of a year.”
Calling it an “imperfect” piece of legislation, Senator Harry Reid has supported the renewal of the legislation on the basis that it is “necessary to protect us from the evil in this world.” However, this is a strange phrase to come from the leader of the Party who constantly railed against the Bush Administration’s warrant sidesteps.
As our government continues with a surveillance agenda that flies in the face of Fourth Amendment protections, many liberals on Capitol Hill and liberals in the media have remained noticeably quiet on the issues of privacy and warrantless surveillance whereas they were significantly more vocal during the Bush Administration.