Law that Legalized Warrantless Wiretapping Up for Reauthorization Today

by Gavin Baker, 9/12/2012

The FISA Amendments Act, the 2008 law that legalized the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, is up for reauthorization on the House floor, with a vote scheduled for later today. The law authorizes the government to get permission from a special, secret court to investigate international communications of American citizens, without specifying suspicion of wrongdoing. 

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, or FISA, grew out of public concerns over Nixon-era surveillance of Americans, particularly protest groups and other organizations.  The law set out specific procedures for wiretapping related to intelligence-gathering activities, including seeking permission from a specially created court when the government wants keep tabs on American citizens communicating with people or organizations overseas.  The FISA Amendments Act loosened some of those requirements.

On the reauthorization effort, Michelle Richardson at ACLU writes:

…the House ambles on, ready to rubber stamp another five years of expansive surveillance that can pick up American communications without meaningful judicial oversight and without probable cause or any finding of wrongdoing.  Instead of blind faith in the executive branch, every member of the House should demand that the administration publicly disclose the following before proceeding with reauthorization:
  • Copies of FISA court opinions interpreting our Fourth Amendment rights under the FAA, with redactions to protect sensitive information (the Department of Justice can write summaries of law if necessary);
  • A rough estimate of how many Americans are surveilled under the [FISA Amendments Act] every year;
  • A description of the rules that govern how American information picked up by [FISA Amendments Act] surveillance is protected.

It is troubling that the House has decided to fast-track reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act.   The reauthorization process normally allows the nation an opportunity to re-examine the logic behind and the consequences of individual laws that Congress puts in place for a set period of time.  The House missed an important opportunity to revisit privacy concerns that have arisen from the act and to require more disclosure about government surveillance of American citizens.

UPDATE: The House voted to reauthorize the FISA Amendments Act late in the afternoon on on Sept. 12. The roll call vote is available on the House website.

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