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Congress to vote on extension of secret surveillance under FISA Act
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Congress to vote on extension of secret surveillance under FISA Act

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Congress to vote on extension of secret surveillance under FISA Act

Congress will decide as early as this Wednesday if they will extend the government’s power to warrantlessly wiretap Americans for another five years when they vote on reauthorizing the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

If approved, provisions first enacted under President George W Bush that provide for the government to conduct widespread and blanketing snooping of emails and phone calls of Americans will extend through 2017, ensuring the federal intelligence community that they will be able to conduct surveillance on the correspondence of the country’s own citizens well into the future.

Amendments to FISA, specifically section 702, specify that the government can eavesdrop on emails and phone calls sent from US citizens to persons reasonably suspected to be located abroad without ever requiring intelligence officials to receive a court order.

The House of Representatives will decide this week if they will reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA), legislation that has been challenged by lawmakers in Washington and privacy and civil liberties organizations around the country alike. Earlier this year, a plea from two US senators to see how many times the FAA has been used was refused by the National Security Administration. Last month, San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit against the US Justice Department for failing to adhere to Freedom of Information Act requests for documents pertaining to the program.

“The FISA Amendments Act (FAA) of 2008 gave the NSA expansive power to spy on Americans' international email and telephone calls,” the EFF explained in an official statement made after the suit was filed. “However, last month, in a letter to Senator Ron Wyden, a government official publicly disclosed that the NSA's surveillance had gone even further than what the law permits, with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) issuing at least one ruling calling the NSA's actions unconstitutional.”

Sen. Wyden, a Democratic lawmaker from Oregon who has also sit on the Senate intelligence committee for several years, originally asked for Congress to place a hold on the vote this past June. This week, Sen. Wyden tells Reuters, "My hold is on and it will stay on," although that plea will most probably by ignored, however, with the House appearing eager to power through the vote this week.

So eager are some lawmakers to proceed, in fact, that the rules of the debates that will precede this week’s likely vote call for no more than one hour of discussion before ballots are cast.

Despite opposition on and off the Hill, the FAA has received praise from some of Washington’s most elite members of the government, including Attorney General Eric Holder and long-standing lawmaker Sen. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the sponsor of the FAA renewal who also infamously urged Congress to approve the since-defeated Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, a broad and dangerous Internet legislation that threatened to reshape the Web as we know it.

In his address at Northwestern University School of Law this past March, Mr. Holder said section 702 of the FAA “ensures that the government has the flexibility and agility it needs to identify and to respond to terrorist and other foreign threats to our security,” but emphasized the fact that only persons thought to be outside the US — not Americans — can be targeted. When Sens. Wyden and Udall asked to know how often that snooping involved Americans at all, however, they were told by the NSA’s Inspector General that a “review of the sort suggested would itself violate the privacy of US persons.”

On his part, Sen. Wyden has written, “that if no one has even estimated how many Americans have had their communications collected under the FISA Amendments Act . . . Then it is possible that this number could be quite large.”

“Since all of the communications collected by the government under section 702 are collected without individual warrants, I believe that there should be clear rules prohibiting the government from searching through these communications in an effort to find the phone calls or emails of a particular American, unless the government has obtained a warrant or emergency authorization permitting surveillance of that American,” the lawmaker wrote in an official press release earlier this year.

Sen. Thomas, the sponsor of both this bill and SOPA, has said, “We have a duty to ensure the intelligence community can gather the intelligence they need to protect our country.”

“We’ve been told that we can’t even tell how many people are being subjected to this process located in the United States, and that we don’t know and they can’t tell us,” Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan ) pleaded earlier this year in opposition to the act. “I think we can get a little bit closer. There can be some reasonableness. It’s this kind of vagueness that creates in those of us in the Congress, suspicions that are negative rather than suspicions that are positive.”

“Why can't we know how many people are affected by FISA amendment act in the US?” Rep Conyers asked. “This kind of vagueness creates suspicions.”

The American Civil Liberties Union reports that, every day, the NSA intercepts and stores around 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, text and other electronic communications thanks to laws like FISA. To put it into perspective, they add, “that’s equivalent to 138 million books, every 24 hours.”

“After four years, you’d hope that some basic information or parameters of such a massive spying program would be divulged to the public, or at least your rank-and-file member of Congress, but they haven’t,” says Michelle Richardson, a counsel at the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. “Only a small handful of members have either personally attended classified briefings or have staff with high enough clearances to attend for them.Sen. Ron Wyden—who has been on the Senate Intelligence Committee for years—has even been stonewalled by the Obama administration for a year and a half in his attempts to learn basic information about the program, such as the number of Americans who have had their communications intercepted under the FAA.”

“Can you believe that 435 members of Congress who have sworn to uphold the Constitution are about to vote on a sweeping intelligence gathering law without this basic information?” she asks.

The House is scheduled to vote on extending the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 on Wednesday or Thursday this week in Washington.


Congress to vote on extension of secret surveillance under FISA Act — RT

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