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Senate Clears Bill to Renew Bush-Era Surveillance Statute

Friday, January 4, 2013
Key Development: Senate clears legislation (H.R. 5949) to reauthorize FISA Amendments Act.

Next Steps: Bill now heads to White House for president's signature.

By Alexei Alexis

Despite privacy concerns, the Senate Dec. 28 cleared a House bill to reauthorize a 2008 law that amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in light of a controversial antiterrorism program launched by the George W. Bush administration.

The bill (H.R. 5949), which was approved by the Senate on a 73-23 vote and now awaits President Obama's signature, would prevent the 2008 law, known as the FISA Amendments Act, from expiring Dec. 31, extending it for an additional five years.

“This necessary legislation will continue to keep America safe by enabling our intelligence community to identify and neutralize terror networks before they harm us either at home or abroad,” Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a joint statement issued after final passage.

The senators added that their committee will continue to conduct “intensive” oversight of the surveillance program in the 113th Congress.

The 2008 law made it easier for the government to intercept the phone calls and emails of overseas surveillance targets for antiterrorism purposes. The reauthorization bill, which has strong support from the White House, would extend the statute without any changes. Critics, worried about the potential for domestic spying through “reverse targeting,” unsuccessfully sought to add privacy safeguards to the law as part of the reauthorization process.

Amendments Rejected
The Senate began consideration of the reauthorization bill Dec. 27, defeating a series of amendments, including a substitute measure from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would have extended the existing surveillance program for three, rather than five, years and subjected it to increased congressional oversight (248 PRA, 12/28/12).

Feinstein said she had to oppose the Leahy amendment and others because there was not enough time at this point for the Senate to pass a bill that would require a negotiations process with the House. She also pointed out that current law already includes reporting requirements and other privacy safeguards.

The 2008 law was enacted after a contentious debate over a warrantless surveillance program launched by the Bush administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (133 PRA, 7/11/08). The program prompted class action lawsuits against leading phone companies, including AT&T and Verizon, which were accused of providing the government with illegal access to customer communications.

Under the 2008 law, phone and internet companies that had assisted the government were granted retroactive liability protection. In addition, the statute provided the intelligence community with a new specialized process for intercepting electronic communications when a non-U.S. person outside the United States is targeted. Rather than seeking a warrant for each individual surveillance target, the government was allowed to submit annual certifications to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court identifying categories of foreign intelligence targets and describing how data will be handled.

 

The FISA reauthorization bill is available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr5949pcs/pdf/BILLS-112hr5949pcs.pdf.

Amendments that were offered can be viewed at: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/R?r112:FLD001:S58453.


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