Activists voice dismay as Senate renews government surveillance measure

by Tom McCarthy, The Guardian  |  published on December 31, 2012

US senator Ron Wyden

Civil rights campaigners voiced dismay on Friday over the US Senate’s re-authorization of the government’s warrantless surveillance program, and the defeat of two amendments that would have provided for basic oversight of the eavesdropping.

The Senate voted 73-23 to extend the law, called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act, for five years. The House of Representatives has already passed the measure, which President Obama has said he will sign.

But while the program was extended as expected, campaigners saw a silver lining in that the vote was closer than when the legislation was first introduced in 2008.

“We’re incredibly disappointed, not just that it passed, but that they rejected some very moderate amendments that wouldn’t have interfered with the collection of intelligence,” said Michelle Richardson, an ACLU expert on surveillance issues.

An amendment by senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon would have required the secret court that oversees surveillance requests to disclose “important rulings of law.” It failed 37-54. An amendment by Merkley’s fellow Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden would have required the government to estimate the number of US citizens it had spied on. It fell by a narrower margin, 43-52.

“We’re actually pleased that so many [Senate] members today want more transparency,” Richardson said, pointing to the 43 votes for Wyden. “There were more members voting for transparency and accountability than there were in 2008. The amendments did better this time.”

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