The US House of Representatives is scheduled today to vote on an five-year extension of the controversial FISA Amendments Acts, which was enacted in 2008 to legalise the Bush adminstration’s wiretapping program.
What is FISA Amendments Act?
The Foreign Intelligence Service Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008 (to give it the full title) was primarily a reaction to the revelations in 2005 that the NSA, under the Bush adminstration, had been conducting warrantless wiretapping. The New York Times revealed that the NSA was authorised under executive order to monitor, without search warrants, the phone calls, internet activity and text messages, of people within the United States.
In case you didn’t know, all wiretapping requires a warrant from a three-judge court to be legal. So the NSA was technically operating outside the law. Furthermore, while the Bush adminstration said the warrantless wiretapping was needed for anti-terrorism measures, critics claimed the government used the monitoring to silence its detractors. Approximately 40 lawsuits have since been filed by groups and individuals against telecommunications companies, alleging that the Bush adminstration illegally wiretapped their internet connection and phones.
So in 2008, the government attempted to fix the issue and bring the NSA’s activities under control. The result was the FISA Amendments Act, which has a number of provisions that seeks to protect the privacy of Americans.
Where did it go wrong?
However, while the FISA Amendments Act brought some welcome oversight to the issue of warrantless wiretapping, it essentially legalised the practice. As the American Civil Liberties Union describes it:
Loopholes and secrecy
Furthermore, US Senators Ron Wyden and Marc Udall both appear to suggest the FISA Amendments Act contains loopholes that allows the NSA to collect “massive amounts of data” on US citizens without warrants.
The two Senators asked officials how many Americans had been spied on via the program and were not given an answer. In fact, multiple intelligence officials told them it was “not possible” to determine how many had been spied on under the act. This led Wyden to conclude in August 2011 that ” there are important questions that need to be answered before the FISA Amendments Act is given a long-term extension."
“..one of the central questions that Congress needs to ask is, are these procedures working as intended? Are they keeping the communications of law-abiding Americans from being swept up under this authority that was designed to apply to foreigners?
Voting on it anyway…
But as TechDirt reports, Congress seems “ready to push this extension through no matter what…without bothering to understand the massive loopholes and likely abuse by the feds under the law.”
It certainly seems bizarre that members of Congress would be prepared to vote on extending a piece of legislation when they do not have basic information about it, such as how it’s enabling the warrantless spying on US citizens. Yet that’s what they will be doing today.
The ACLU has an action page that can provide more information on the FISA Amendments Act, including a submission form to voice your concerns to Congress.