It appears that Barack Obama has continued his predecessor’s legacy of legal, but unlawful warrantless wiretapping of phone calls and peeking and snooping around your email for an additional five years. Obama signed an extension to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) on Sunday evening amidst the “fiscal cliff” talks.
FISA was first signed into law in the 1970s and its purpose was to put into place rules with regards to domestic spying withing the United States. However, with the passing of the 2008 version of the FAA, all online and telephone activities became subject to sweeping, warrantless wiretapping where there is suspicion of U.S. citizens engaging in conversations with people who are outside the country. Yeah, it’s a clear violation of that pesky Fourth Amendment!
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.
Wyden warned from the Senate floor on Friday, “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.
Still the Senate approved the five-year extension by a vote of 73-23. Obama signed it into law just two days later.
The Hill reported, “The Senate considered three amendments Thursday from Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). All three failed to pass. They would have extended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for three years instead of five, declassified FISA court opinions, and clarified that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects U.S. citizens from intelligence-related searches done overseas.”
As W. James Antle III writes an excellent piece on what took place with FISA. At the end he mocks Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) when she said, “I guess you believe no one is going to attack us, then it’s fine to do this.” Antle reponds, as I would, “I guess if you believe government powers are never abused, or that Democrats will protect our civil liberties even when a president of their own party is in power, it’s fine not to do ‘this.’“