Obama authorizes five more years of warrantless wiretapping
President Barack Obama inked his name over the weekend to an extension of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, a George W. Bush-era legislation that has allowed the government expansive spy powers that has been considered by some to be dragnet surveillance.
FISA, or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was first signed into law in the 1970s in order to put into place rules regarding domestic spying within the United States. Upon the passing of the FAA in 2008, however, the online and over-the-phone activities of Americans became subject to sweeping, warrantless wiretapping in instances where investigators reasonably suspect US citizens to be engaged in conversation with persons located outside of the country.
Congress had only up until the end of 2012 to either reauthorize FISA and the FAA, or let the bill expire. Despite a large grassroots campaign from privacy advocates and civil liberties organization to ensure the acts would fade from history, though, the Senate approved a five-year extension of the legislation on Friday. Just two days later, Pres. Obama signed his name to the act, opening up the inboxes and phone records of US citizens to the federal government until at least 2018.
Although on the books since 2008, the FAA has come under increased criticism this year thanks to efforts from a select group of lawmakers who have adamantly demanded answers about a program largely considered to be cloaked in secrecy. In May, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) sent a letter to the National Security Agency asking for an estimate of how many Americans have been targeted since the FAA went on the books. In response, Inspector General I. Charles McCullough said honoring that request would be “beyond the capacity” of the office, and that “dedicating sufficient additional resources would likely impede the NSA’s mission.”
“If no one will even estimate how many Americans have had their communications collected under this law then it is all the more important that Congress act to close the ‘back door searches’ loophole, to keep the government from searching for Americans’ phone calls and emails without a warrant,” Wyden, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told Wired.com’s Danger Room.
Although Americans cannot be specifically targeted under the FAA without getting the approval of a select panel of FISA judges, the warrantless monitoring of messages involving anyone outside of the country can easily collect collateral information about US citizens.
Speaking on the Senate floor on Friday before the FISA vote, Wyden warned, “You can’t just go out checking everybody in sight with the prospect of that maybe there’s someone who’s done something wrong.”
“Government officials may only search someone’s house if they have evidence that someone is breaking the law and they show the evidence to a judge to get an individual warrant,” he said.
Despite attempts from Wyden and others to overturn the FAA, though, it cleared the Senate by a vote of 73-23 on Friday and was signed by Pres. Obama in Washington just two days later.
Even as the FISA renewal was up for debate on Capitol Hill, attempts to add privacy safeguards that would prevent the collection of personal data pertaining to US citizens were ignored. Sen. Wyden and others had asked for amendments to be included to this year’s update, but all provisions were rejected before the final bill was passed.
Trevor Timm, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, writes, “all the proposed amendments that would have brought a modicum of transparency and oversight to the government's activities, despite previous refusals by the Executive branch to even estimate how many Americans are surveilled by this program or reveal critical secret court rulings interpreting it.”
“The common-sense amendments the Senate hastily rejected were modest in scope and written with the utmost deference to national security concerns. The Senate had months to consider them, but waited until four days before the law was to expire to bring them to the floor, and then used the contrived time crunch to stifle any chances of them passing.”
In July 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama voted in favor of the FAA but said in a statement that it wasn’t an “easy call” since the legislation was “far from perfect.” In particular, Obama said he was concerned with a section that provided retroactive immunity to telecommunication companies that cooperated with Pres. Bush’s requests for warrantless wiretapping in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Sen. Obama said he would work to remove that provision from the bill if elected president, but reauthorized it for another five years on Sunday without any comment.