President Obama has agreed to renew a controversial spy measure over objections from critics — including many in his own party — who say it seriously threatens Americans’ privacy and constitutional rights.
The president signed a bill Sunday that would extend by five years the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Senate passed the bill Friday on a bipartisan vote of 73-23; the House easily cleared the measure earlier this year.
FISA was established in 1978 and allows U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct physical and electronic surveillance of foreign terrorism suspects overseas. Americans can get swept up in an investigation if officials think they are in contact with a terrorism suspect.
Several provisions in the law, which was updated and extended in 2008, were 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 easily can 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 have communicated has been targeted in a terrorism probe. They also say such action threatens 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 seizure.
“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 during debate on FISA a day earlier.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, 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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Sean Lengell covers Congress and national politics and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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