The National Security Agency (NSA), after 9/11, received a blank check from Washington to conduct wiretaps on American citizens without a court-issued warrant. The process, legalized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), recently came up for renewal in the U.S. Senate.
A strong majority of 73 senators voted for the legislation, while 23 voted against it. Detractors included members of both parties, including rarely allied senators like Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.). President Obama signed the FISA renewal into law at the end of December, extending it through the year 2017.
FISA not only allows warrantless phone tapping, but also extensive scrutiny of any Americans’ electronic communications. Some senators, like Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), pushed for fuller disclosure of the NSA’s methodology for collecting electronic information. Wyden’s proposed amendment to FISA failed in the senate, with traditionally liberal senators like Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) arguing in favor of keeping the program’s methods secret.
To reveal how the NSA operates it’s wiretapping, according to Feinstein, would mean the destruction of the program. Wyden’s amendment, according to Feinstein, would threaten the program by revealing “information about a very effective intelligence collection program that is currently classified.”
Some senators brought opposition based on constitutional grounds. Sen. Paul argued that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which speaks against “unreasonable search and seizure,” should protect Americans from being spied on by their own government.
FISA was originally passed in 1978, but heavily expanded by the second Bush administration. As long as the NSA’s objective was to collect foreign intelligence, no warrant for monitoring electronic communications would be required. Organizations like the ACLU have questioned the legality of the expansion, arguing that the NSA was accountable to no one and could easily exploit private communications between Americans that had nothing to do with foreign intelligence.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) also proposed an amendment to FISA asking the U.S. Attorney General to reveal secret decisions made by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That amendment also failed to pass before the FISA extension went to the voting floor.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman