Congress on Friday voted to renew a key foreign surveillance law despite push-back from critics who say it seriously threatens constitutional privacy rights for Americans.
The Senate passed a five-year extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments (FISA) Act by a bipartisan vote of 73-23. The bill, which easily passed the House earlier this year, is expected to be signed by President Obama.
FISA was established in 1978 and allows U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct physical and electronic surveillance of foreign terrorist suspects overseas. Americans can get swept up in an investigation if officials think they're in contact with a suspected terrorist.
Several provisions in the law, which was updated and extended in 2008, are scheduled to expire Tuesday.
The measure says intelligence officials can't intentionally target a specific American, nor intentionally acquire communications that are "known at the time of acquisition" to be wholly domestic.
But some contend innocent citizens can easily get swept up in such investigations and that their phone calls and emails can be reviewed without a warrant.
Critics say Americans may be unaware a friend or family member with whom they've communicated has been targeted as a suspected or potential terrorist. They also say such action threatens constitutional privacy rights because intelligence officials can eavesdrop on them without a warrant.
Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat and a leading opponent of extending FISA without significant changes, said the Founding Fathers would abhor the law because it violates Fourth Amendment protections against "unreasonable search and seizures."
"You can't just go out checking everybody in sight with the prospect of that maybe there's someone who's done something wrong," Mr. Wyden said on the Senate floor Friday. "Government officials may only search someone's house if they have evidence that someone is breaking the law and they show the evidence to a judge to get an individual warrant."
An amendment proposed by Mr. Wyden that would have strengthened privacy rights of Americans failed by eight votes.
But supporters of the measure say weakening of FISA would handcuff the intelligence community and compromise national security.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says there already is "vigorous oversight" of intelligence-gathering techniques built into the law.
"I'm fully satisfied that the [FISA Amendments Act] is working exactly as intended and in a manner that protects our rights as Americans," said Mr. Chambliss on the Senate during debate on FISA a day earlier.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, praised the Senate's action.
"Our national security agencies operate around the clock to protect America from foreign terrorist groups and spies. But in order to keep America safe, we must be able to conduct surveillance of foreign terrorists and intelligence organizations," he said.
Despite the bitter partisanship that has gripped Capitol Hill this Congress, the vote to extend FISA was unusually bipartisan, as 42 Republicans, 30 Democrats and one independent supported the measure.
On the "nay" said, a mix of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans joined forces.
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