Senate renews warrantless surveillance program

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W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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The Senate voted Friday to re-authorize key provisions of the foreign surveillance act that has allowed warrantless wiretapping, despite questions from some senators about the extent of the federal government’s monitoring of American citizens.

Supporters say the bill provides vital intelligence about terrorists plotting to attack the United States, while critics claim there are insufficient checks to protect basic privacy rights.

Like the George W. Bush White House before it, the Obama administration pushed for a “clean” re-authorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) amendments package, while critics pushed for details about when the government has intercepted emails and telephone calls without a warrant. The House renewed the legislation in September.

Both the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and the ranking member, Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, also advocated renewing the law for another five years without any changes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also demanded action.

“FISA, this is an important piece of legislation as imperfect as it is, it is necessary to protect us from the evil in this world,” Reid said on the Senate floor last week, in an unsuccessful attempt to re-up the bill before Christmas.

“But Christmas is not more important than this legislation,” Reid continued. “I hope I’m not offending anyone, but it isn’t.”

“No one should think the targets are U.S. persons,” said Feinstein on Thursday. “Thirteen members of the intelligence committee who have voted on this do not believe this is a problem.”

Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who had put a hold on the bill, demanded to know how many Americans’ communications had been subject to surveillance. He was unable to obtain an estimate. He said that the law should not be “an ‘end run’ around traditional warrant requirements and conduct backdoor searches for American’s communications.”

Wyden’s amendment requiring a report on the privacy impact of the law was the last obstacle to a clean bill. It was defeated Friday by a vote of 52 to 43.

Fellow Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced an amendment requiring the government to declassify key decisions by the secret FISA court, arguing against “secret law” in surveillance. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul extending Fourth Amendment protections to electronic communications.

Paul argued that just by looking at credit card statements, “the government may be able to ascertain what magazines you read, whether you drink and how much, whether you gamble and how much, whether you’re a conservative, a liberal, a libertarian, whom do you contribute to, who is your preferred political party, whether you attend a church, a synagogue or a mosque, whether you see a psychiatrist, what type of medication do you take.”

“By poring over your Visa statement, the government can pry into every aspect of your personal life,” the senator continued. “Do you really want to allow your government unfettered access to sift through millions and millions of records without first obtaining a judicial warrant?”

The Paul and Merkley amendments were both defeated on Thursday.

The debate was testy at times. At one point, Feinstein said of privacy amendment supporters, “I guess you believe no one is going to attack us, then it’s fine to do this.”

While running for president in 2008, Obama pledged to have his attorney general “conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future.”

Yet civil libertarians have been disappointed. “I bet [Bush] is laughing his ass off,” Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel in the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Huffington Post.

The final Senate vote was 73 to 23 in favor of renewing the FISA provisions until 2018. The president is expected to sign the extension before the law expires early next year.

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W. James Antle III