Controversial US surveillance law passes lower house of Congress
MOSCOW, September 13 - RAPSI, Ingrid Burke. The US House of Representatives approved the extension Wednesday of a highly controversial intelligence surveillance law that had been set to expire at the end of this year, according to the House website. The extension passed the House with 301 yeas trumping 118 nays, and will next be subject to a Senate vote.
At issue were a set of amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act enacted in 2008 in order: "to establish a procedure for authorizing certain acquisitions of foreign intelligence, and for other purposes." The house allocated one hour for debate. Yesterday's congressional vote supports a five year extension to the 2008 amendments. Thus the only changes to the text of the law if the amendments pass the Senate vote would pertain to previously established dates. Any mention of the 2012 repeal date would be swapped out with 2017 and the law's name would change from FISA Amendments Act of 2008 to the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012.
Speaking in defense of the extension, Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tx.) urged that, "America and its allies continue to face national security threats from foreign nations, spies, and terrorist organizations. Our national security agencies must be able to conduct surveillance of foreign targets and others so we can stop them before they disable our defenses, carry out a plot against our country, or kill innocent Americans."
Smith explained that FISA was introduced in 1978 in order to provide procedures for the domestic collection of foreign intelligence. Over time, interpretations of the law came to require the government to seek individualized court orders from special tribunals presided over by federal judges that were established by the law. According to government officials, this took a major toll on the law's effectiveness - cutting out 2/3 of the foreign information it was able to intercept.
Smith maintains that the 2008 amendments, which abolished the individual-warrant requirement as concerns foreign individuals, more closely aligned the law with its drafters original intent.
He stated in conclusion that, "Foreign terrorists continue to search for new ways to attack America. Foreign nations continue to spy on America, to plot cyber attacks and attempt to steal sensitive information from our military and private-sector industries. They are committed to the destruction of our country, and their methods of communication are constantly evolving. We have a solemn responsibility to ensure that the intelligence community can gather the information it needs to protect our country and protect our citizens."
Representative Zoe Logren (D-Ca.) urged to the contrary, "I think the government needs to comply with the 4th Amendment to the Constitution all the time. I think that the privacy of Americans should not be subject to the lower standard of minimization procedures- that's not in the Constitution."
Lofgren took major issue with a loophole that could allow the government to conduct a warrantless search for information on US citizens if such is available by way of a data pool of information amassed in accordance with the law.
The American Civil Liberties Union lambasted the Obama administration for keeping details key to the bill's consideration murky: "Sen. Ron Wyden [D-Or. - ed.] who has been on the Senate Intelligence Committee for years - has even been stonewalled by the Obama administration for a year and a half in his attempts to learn basic information about the program, such as the number of Americans who have had their communications intercepted under the (FISA Amendments Act)."
AP reported that general counsel Robert Litt for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence urged during a 9/11 anniversary press briefing Tuesday the imperative of extending the bill, emphasizing its value as an anti-terror instrument and its success with balancing national security and civil rights interests.
When pressed by reporters for information on the number of Americans who have been monitored under the law, Litt maintained that such information was not readily available.
According to congressional documents released shortly after the passage of the 2008 amendments, the increased scope of government power was prompted by a national intelligence report on the threat of terrorism on US soil, which, "expressed the judgment, in part, that the [US] Homeland will face a persistent and evolving threat over the next three years, the main threat coming from Islamic terrorist groups and cells, particularly Al Qaeda."