Warrantless Wiretapping Law Reauthorized by House for Five Years

  • The FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012 was approved in the House by a vote of 301-118. 
  • The reauthorization, if passed in the Senate later this year, would extend the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 for another five years. 
  • The law allows the government to conduct warrantless wiretapping of international communications by citizens. 
  • Supporters say the law has “an inordinate amount of oversight” to protect American’s rights and is an important counterterror measure.
  • Opponents consider it a “blank check” for spy agencies for the next five years. 
  • Related, a federal judge ruled against an indefinite detention law that was part of the National Defense Authorization Act.  
Under FISA, the government does not need to obtain a warrant to obtain foreign communications. (Image: Shutterstock.com)

The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly renewed a surveillance law that allows the government to monitor — without a warrant — conversations of foreign spies and terrorist suspects abroad, while requiring approval from a secret court when Americans are targeted anywhere in the world.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008 was issued in 2008 by President George W. Bush to include warrantless wiretapping of citizens’ foreign communications and other surveillance measures as a counterterror measure. The reauthorization would extend FISA for another five years.

At the same time, the New York Times repots a federal judge ruling against indefinite detention, which when combined with the House’s approval of the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012, shows the “debate over the balance between national security and civil liberties is still unfolding 11 years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11”:

In the detention case, Judge Katherine B. Forrest of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a permanent injunction barring the government from relying on the defense authorization law to hold people in indefinite military detention on suspicion that they “substantially supported” Al Qaeda or its allies — at least if they had no connection to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Privacy and civil rights advocates, like the American Civil Liberties Union, have spoken out against the reauthorization act. In a recent blog post about the act, the ACLU criticized the law for allowing monitoring of “American communications without meaningful judicial oversight and without probable cause or any finding of wrongdoing.” It called for those in the House to demand those in the Obama administration disclose the following information, which they should then take into account before, reauthorizing FISA:

  • Copies of FISA court opinions interpreting our Fourth Amendment rights under the FAA, with redactions to protect sensitive information (the Department of Justice can write summaries of law if necessary);
  • A rough estimate of how many Americans are surveilled under the FAA every year;
  • A description of the rules that govern how American information picked up by FAA surveillance is protected.

“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?” the ACLU’s Legislative Counsel Michelle Richardson wrote.

TheBlaze reported earlier this year senators asking the National Security Administration for the number of people spied upon through this program were issued a response from the Inspector General of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence I. Charles McCullough. The response said not only that the information regarding that is classified but also that divulging it could violate the privacy of persons spied upon.

The amendment was brought to the floor under a closed ruling, meaning no amendments were allowed to be made to it. OBM Watch calls it “troubling” that the House seems to have “fast tracked” reauthorization of this act.

“The House missed an important opportunity to revisit privacy concerns that have arisen from the act and to require more disclosure about government surveillance of American citizens,” Gavin Baker wrote for OBM Watch.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. said, “While it’s certainly appropriate for our government to gather foreign intelligence and while some degree of secrecy is necessary, it’s also vital in a free society that we limit government, protect the constitutional rights of Americans here and abroad, and limit warrantless spying to genuine foreign intelligence.

“Unfortunately we have seen repeatedly how even the very minimal restraints Congress put on FISA have been violated,” Nadler said. “We should address those abuses. Congress has an obligation to exert more control over spy agencies than simply to give them a blank check for another five years.”

Still, House supporters, of which there were 301 representatives that approved the reauthorization compared to 118 that voted against, assured Americans that their rights are protected.

“This is about foreigners on foreign soil. It’s not a dragnet,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

He said Americans’ rights “are alive and well here. This is one of those programs that has an inordinate amount of oversight to make sure we are not targeting Americans. In the odd case where an American is intercepted, there are very strict procedures on how to destroy that information and correct that problem. And it has not happened hardly, frequently, at all….”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the law would help stop terrorists “before they disable our defenses, carry out a plot against our country or kill innocent Americans.”

The Senate is expected to vote on the act later this year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

This story has ben updated to correct a spelling error.