Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Guest Blogger
It is always rare in Washington these days when a bipartisan majority passes any bill in the House of Representatives or the Senate. However, while most of the media interest last week was fixed on the so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiations and the subsequent legislation that was passed and signed into law, maybe the media missed the more important legislation. That missed legislation was a 5 year extension of the FISA amendments that was granted by the Senate in a bipartisan 72-23 vote last week. “The Senate voted 72-23 last week to extend the FISA Amendments Act another five years, which President Obama signed Sunday. Unfortunately, the public discussion of George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program may soon fade back into the shadows.” ACLU
This is a continuation of the same Bush-era FISA bill that was alleged to spy on almost anyone’s electronic communication, all without warrants. So, instead of sunshine being used to bring some accountability and transparency to this secret spying, for Five more years, American’s phone calls and text messages can be monitored almost at will by the government with little or no judicial restraint. What is Congress and the Intelligence community hiding from the American people?
The only good news that I can see in the passage of this five-year extension is that a few Senators made significant attempts to amend the bill to provide for more disclosure and review of this secret process. “Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a long-time member of the Intelligence Committee, valiantly fought for a year- and-a-half for basic information about how this surveillance program affects Americans and put a hold on the bill until a debate and amendment process was scheduled. He finally got a vote to force disclosure of whether the National Security Agency is vacuuming up wholly domestic communications or searching through FISA taps for Americans, yet it failed by a vote of 42-52. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) also went to the mattress over the secret FISA court opinions that determine whether we have constitutional rights to privacy in foreign intelligence investigations. He put the Senate to a vote on whether the administration should be forced to release the court opinions, supply unclassified summaries of them, or explain why they should be kept secret. That one went down 37-54. Simply put, if the public were to find out what the government is doing with our information, or how many of us are affected, the program would be “destroyed,” according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).” ACLU
Mother Jones hit the nail on the head when it described what happened when the Senate voted to extend the FISA amendments. “As the Senate debated the renewal of the government’s warrantless wiretapping powers on Thursday, Republicans who have accused President Barack Obama of covering up his involvement in the death of an American ambassador urged that his administration be given sweeping spying powers. Democrats who accused George W. Bush of shredding the Constitution with warrantless wiretapping four years ago sung a different tune this week, with the administration itself quietly urging passage of the surveillance bill with no changes, and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) accusing her Democratic colleagues of not understanding the threat of terrorism.” Mother Jones
Does it amaze anyone else that the only thing that the Hatfields and McCoys of the Senate can get together on with a 72-23 margin is a bill that most of them don’t understand and which allows unfettered spying on ordinary Americans? Does Sen. Feinstein actually think that Americans don’t realize that we are still under the threat of terrorism? Why can these Senators come to a bipartisan result on measures that allow Uncle Sam to listen in on anyone’s communications, but they cannot agree with each other when it comes to the universal non-partisan issue of global climate change or necessary and reasonable gun control measures?
Both the ACLU article and the Mother Jones article linked above highlight that fact that common sense amendments to provide more disclosure on what the government is doing with our communications that were made by a few Senators with some support is evidence that we are getting closer to the day when the Senate will draw a line in the sand and require protections for citizens in their communications. The vote total for the vote on the extension bill actually included 3 Republicans voting against the extensions. I hope Democratic Senator Schumer would explain his vote along with Senator Levin who also voted in favor of extending this warrantless wiretapping. At some point these Senators and other Democratic Senators need to actually represent the people they claim they are protecting. Senate.gov
While I am glad that some of the amendments proposed to the bill garnered 30 or 40 votes, I am not as optimistic as the ACLU in their hopes for an end to these draconian spying measures. I guess I should be happy that some Senators have begun to question the Intelligence Community and the Obama Administration on these Bush-era FISA amendments, but I will hold my applause until the final act. What do you think the Senate should do about the proposed amendments? Can we be protected from terrorists without losing our rights? I don’t know if we will ever find out! I hope I am wrong.