Senate Approves Intelligence Reform And, With It, Telecom Amnesty
from the oversight-is-for-your-phone-calls dept
The Senate has just approved controversial legislation reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, by a vote of 68?29. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Kit Bond (R-MO) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), empowers the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General to authorize warrantless surveillance of foreign parties whose communications pass through U.S. switches, even when they are communicating with Americans. It also grants retroactive amnesty to telecom firms alleged to have illegally provided the government with access to their customers’ data without a court order — a provision some Democrats tried and failed to have stripped from the legislation earlier today.
Several other amendments that would have provided additional checks on surveillance also failed in the Senate, including language reasserting FISA’s status as the “exclusive means” by which intelligence surveillance may be conducted, a provision barring indiscriminate “bulk collection” of telecom traffic, and a compromise measure that would have allowed civil suits against the telecoms to continue, but substituted the federal government as the defendant. The one victory for civil libertarians was the approval of an amendment offered by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) permitting the secret FISA court to review intelligence agencies’ compliance with “minimization” rules meant to limit the retention of communications involving innocent Americans. Following a vote to invoke cloture, bringing debate on the bill to a halt and foreclosing any attempt to mount a filibuster, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) delivered impassioned speeches condemning the legislation as an affront to both privacy and the rule of law.
The Senate bill must now be reconciled in conference with the House version, known as the RESTORE Act, which lacks the controversial immunity provision and provides for greater judicial oversight of surveillance. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is seeking to further extend the stopgap Protect America Act, which this reform bill is meant to supplant, in order to provide time to reach agreement between the two chambers.