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January 8, 2013

We get fooled again on FISA amendments

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? 

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