Nobody likes being spied on. That’s why the entire country flipped out in December 2005 when the New York Times published a sprawling exposé on the Bush administration’s Patriot Act-era updates to the three decade-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as the FISA Amendments Act. “Months after the Sept. 11 attacks,” reads the article’s lede, “President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.” Egads! So the government was just secretly spying on Americans, brushing aside the Fourth Amendment and bringing us one rung closer to an evil surveillance state? That’s not cool.
Thank God those Draconian days of fear and insanity are behind us, eh fellow Americans?
Yeah, right. The House of Representatives just renewed the objectionable measures in the FISA Amendments Act which is set to expire at the end of this year. In a 301-118 vote in favor of passage — 111 Democrats and seven Republicans voted “NO” — the House gave the green light to extending the law until December 31, 2017. This means five more years of allowing the government to eavesdrop on every day Americans’ emails and phone calls without a warrant or even probable cause. All they need to justify the spying is for a foreign national to be involved. Then it’s not the government spying on its own citizens. It’s taking the appropriate measures “to acquire foreign intelligence information.” That’s how the law reads, anyways.
Despite the collective outrage felt seven years ago when the Times pulled back the curtain on the law, the Obama administration is gunning for its renewal. “Intelligence collection under [the law] has produced and continues to produce significant information that is vital to defend the nation against international terrorism and other threats,” the White House officials said in statement on Monday. The bill’s sponsor, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who also happens to have been the sponsor of the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), was a little more enthusiastic in promoting the measure. He called the FISA Amendments Act “one of the most important votes we cast in this Congress,” because the terrorists “are committed to the destruction of our country.” The terrorists as well as your grandma, when she calls her sister in the old country, apparently.
Not everybody is so bullish about this warrantless wiretapping idea, though. “I think the government needs to comply with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution all the time,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, during an hourlong debate on the House floor. “We can be safe while still complying with the Constitution of the United States.”
The Senate has been similarly hesitant with their version of the bill which would extend the FISA Amendments Act for three years. Sen. Ron Wyden, another West Coast Democrat, put the bill on hold in June in order to do a little bit more research into the scale of the surveillance. “Before Congress votes to renew these authorities, it is important to understand how they are working in practice,” Wyden said at the time. “In particular, it is important for Congress to better understand how many people inside the United States have had their communications collected or reviewed under the authorities granted by the FISA Amendments Act.”
The jury’s apparently still out in the Senate, but civil rights groups know exactly how they feel about the bill. The American Civil Liberties Union and 19 other organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and PEN American Center, sent a letter to members of Congress on Tuesday, ahead of the vote in the house, urging lawmakers to strike down the measure. Quite compellingly, they point to another Times piece — this one from April 2009 — that revealed just how widespread the use (and abuse) of warrantless wiretapping was. The lede reads: “The National Security Agency intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year, government officials said in recent interviews.” It gets worse. Intelligence officials told the paper that the “overcollection” of Americans’ domestic correspondence is “significant and systemic.”
But seriously, how would we know where to send the drones if the Feds couldn’t listen in on everyone’s phone calls? Horrible things could happen. We might accidentally kill civilians or something! Wait a second. That sounds familiar…