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January 8, 2013

We get fooled again on FISA amendments

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — While everyone was busy teetering on the edge of the fiscal cliff 10 days ago, there was little fanfare or outrage when President Barack Obama signed a five-year extension of a Bush-era surveillance program.

The president acted just days after the Senate gave its OK to an extension of the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. The measure continues the government’s power to intercept phone calls, emails and other communications of alleged suspects in spying and terrorism matters.

The Senate had voted down proposals for more oversight and transparency in the program, again sending Americans over a steep civil liberties and privacy cliff.

While the FISA amendments only permit the targeting of foreigners or groups abroad for surveillance, there is nothing to prevent spying on foreign communications with Americans citizens. Moreover, because it’s all done in secret, we have no way of knowing how often it occurs or what information on Americans is collected.

Oddly enough, FISA originally was adopted in 1978 to prevent wiretapping and other surveillance of Americans without a warrant. The amendments that President George W. Bush sought and got in 2008 turned the act on its head by authorizing warrantless spying on foreign communications — even if they were with Americans.

Bush’s intention, of course, was to make legal the surveillance the government had been conducting routinely since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While the FISA amendments have uncovered terrorist chatter abroad, surveillance should not be without warrants and there should be oversight when American citizens are involved.

Before the extension was approved, a few lawmakers, such as Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, rightly tried to soften the blow to civil rights. Wyden’s defeated proposal would have required the national intelligence director to inform Congress if any email or telephone conversations involving Americans were being intercepted. What’s wrong with that? 

Another doomed proposal would have required the government to get a warrant if Americans were involved. Gee, why don’t we just repeal the Fourth Amendment?

Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel at the ACLU, said, “the Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping, once considered a radical threat to the Fourth Amendment, has become institutionalized for another five years.”

Clashing with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president in early 2008, Obama said he had serious reservations about the FISA amendments and could not support them. However, after locking up the nomination, he changed his mind and in the Senate voted in favor of them.

Now, it is even more disturbing that he would sign an extension. If you communicate with friends overseas, be aware the government could be spying. Worse yet, it does not have to be made public that Big Brother is watching.

Politics and television

Time Warner Cable almost immediately announced it was dumping the news and issues channel Current TV after it was learned that Al-Jazeera was buying it.

What is Time Warner afraid of? It’s not hard to guess.

The Al-Jazeera news service, based in Qatar, had been trying to gain a larger U.S. audience since it launched its English-language operation in 2006. The purchase of Current TV, of which Al Gore is part-owner, was expected to be a big step toward that goal by putting it into about 40 million American households.

The news service, which is paying $500 million for Current TV, said it would greatly expand its U.S. news reporting by adding bureaus and reporters in what will become Al-Jazeera America.

However, shortly after the deal was announced, Time Warner Cable customers switching to Current TV saw only a message that the channel is no longer available. While Time Warner insisted it was a business decision based on numbers of viewers, the timing tends to lead you to other conclusions.

With the Arab/Muslim bias so prevalent is this country, it may be easy for those not familiar with Al-Jazeera to see it as an arm of pro-Arab propaganda. That is clearly not the case. The news service has won numerous major American and international awards for its journalism.

And even if it did have an overt point of view, that would be no reason to censor it. After all, Time Warner carries Fox News and MSNBC, two highly biased mainstream networks.

Dan Gilmor, a founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, rightly stated that Time Warner Cable is showing abject political and journalistic cowardice by dropping Current TV because of the Al-Jazeera deal.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.