By Greg Slabodkin
Over the past few weeks, our elected representatives have had a lot on their plates. With our country headed for a fiscal cliff and the gun control debate heating up, legislators are a little preoccupied. Nevertheless, the Senate on Dec. 28 found time to reauthorize the controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act, ensuring five more years of warrantless and unconstitutional surveillance of millions of innocent Americans by the U.S. government.
Exploiting Washington’s chaotic political landscape, the Senate pushed through a five-year extension of the FISA Amendments Act while America’s attention was focused elsewhere. Originally passed by Congress in 2008 as an amendment to the 1978 law, this legislation provided vast new powers for the U.S. government to gain access to the electronic communications of Americans, enabling law enforcement and intelligence agencies to conduct their domestic surveillance with no accountability.
Unfortunately, a lot of Americans are unaware of the FISA Amendments Act and its wide-ranging provisions for domestic surveillance, portions of which were to expire on Dec. 31. FISA concerns the acquisition of foreign intelligence by wiretapping and physical and data searches “in the interests of national security.” According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the FISA Amendments Act for the first time allowed the government to get secret FISA court orders – orders that do not require probable cause like regular warrants – for any emails or phone calls going to and from overseas.
One of the few voices of reason was Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who told U.S. News & World Report that “citizens generally assume our government is not spying on them. If they had any inkling of how this system really works, the details of which I cannot discuss, they would be profoundly appalled.”
As Americans, we are supposed to be protected by the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable searches and seizures, including the government’s access to electronic data such as phone conversations and emails. Yet, in the name of a “global war on terrorism” with limited judicial oversight, our rights have been trampled on by the government’s warrantless dragnet of our communications.
The Senate signed us up for another five years of surveillance, rather than taking a hard look at the FISA Amendments Act. What was urgently needed was a real debate about the unprecedented access and jurisdiction our government has assumed in our lives. Instead, the senators gave this outrageous law their rubber stamp on the way out the door as a New Year’s gift.
Greg Slabodkin of Kenmore writes about the intersection of government policy and technology.