Civil Liberties

Unwarranted intrusions on civil liberties

by  |  published on January 2, 2013

Washington may not know what to do about the economy, deficits or the debt ceiling, but it has no hesitation about giving a blank check on government surveillance, even if it includes access to your e-mail.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was a terrible and constitutionally suspect idea when it originally passed in 2008, and it’s appalling that Congress decided it was worth another five years.

The 2008 measure was a cynical way to retroactively legalize the secret warrantless surveillance measures that President George W. Bush had authorized for the National Security Agency. The law allows intelligence agencies to monitor Internet activity and phone calls from foreign terror suspects without a warrant, even if those communications are to or from U.S. citizens. Though intelligence agencies have to minimize the collection of U.S. citizens’ communications – and get a warrant if a U.S. citizen is considered to be the target of the surveillance – the law is rife with loopholes.

Agencies can conduct whatever kind of surveillance they want, warrant-free, for up to a week if the situation is considered to be an emergency. That’s a loophole that’s ripe for abuse, and in fact intelligence agencies haven’t released information about how many U.S. citizens have been spied on under this law. The only thing we know for certain is that there will be more, now that Congress has given them another five years to do so. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation.

This law is a clear breach of our Fourth Amendment rights, but the House of Representatives passed the extension in September and the Senate just passed it last week. A few senators tried to offer fig-leaf amendments – notably Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who wanted the NSA to report how many Americans have had their communications intercepted, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., whose amendment would have extended the Fourth Amendment protections to e-mail and text messaging – but they were shot down by their colleagues.

President Bush had a terrible record on warrantless surveillance, and Obama has failed to deliver the change he promised on civil liberties.

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