Wyden & Udall Block FISA Amendments Act Until US Admits How Many Americans Are Being Spied On
from the would-be-useful-to-know... dept
We’ve been covering the fight that Senators Ron Wyden and Marc Udall have been in with the administration (and other members of Congress) concerning the FISA Amendments Act, in which the two Senators seem to be suggesting that a loophole in the law has allowed the feds to collect massive amounts of data on Americans without getting warrants. While they are unable to make the details clear, it sure sounds like the feds may be twisting the language of the Act, which was supposed to clear away some obstacles to collecting data on foreigners, such that they’re collecting massive amounts of data on Americans. When Wyden & Udall asked officials just how many Americans had their data collected via this program, they were told it was impossible to answer that question. That alone should raise serious alarm bells.
Wyden and Udall have now put a hold on the new FISA Amendment Acts extension effort, saying that they don’t want to hold back the important parts of the law, but are very worried about how it’s being abused to spy on tons of Americans, despite that being against the clear intent. It does seem like a fair question to ask: just how many Americans have had their data surveilled under the law?
We are particularly concerned about a loophole in the law that could allow the government to effectively conduct warrantless searches for Americans’ communications. Since we do not know how many Americans have had their phone calls and emails collected under this law, we believe that it is particularly important to have strong rules in place to protect the privacy of these Americans. We are disappointed that this bill does not attempt to add these protections.
The central provision in the FISA Amendments Act added a new section 702 to the original FISA statute. Section 702 was designed to give the government new authorities to collect the communications of people who are reasonably believed to be foreigners outside the United States. Because section 702 does not involve obtaining individual warrants, it contains language specifically intended to limit the government’s ability to use these new authorities to deliberately spy on American citizens.
We have concluded, however, that section 702 currently contains a loophole that could be used to circumvent traditional warrant protections and search for the communications of a potentially large number of American citizens. We have sought repeatedly to gain an understanding of how many Americans have had their phone calls or emails collected and reviewed under this statute, but we have not been able to obtain even a rough estimate of this number.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence told the two of us in July 2011 that “it is not reasonably possible to identify the number of people located in the United States whose communications may have been reviewed” under the FISA Amendments Act. We are prepared to accept that it might be difficult to come up with an exact count of this number, but it is hard for us to believe that it is impossible to even estimate it.
It really is incredible just how much it seems that the federal government is doing everything it can to avoid the basic checks and balances that are supposed to keep excessive behavior in check. Considering the bill is supposed to protect, not expose, Americans, it’s scary that the government refuses to even estimate how many Americans are spied upon in this manner. Given the continued efforts and statements of Wyden and Udall, it seems evident that they’re aware that the feds are treating this law in a very different manner than the public believes — but they’re held back from saying anything specific, due to much of the info being classified.
Even worse, however, is the attitude of Senate colleagues, who seem ready to push this extension through no matter what, so they can declare that they’re helping to keep the country secure, without even bothering to understand the massive loopholes and likely abuse by the feds under the law. From what’s been said, it appears that many in the Senate seem to take it at face value that the bill is only used for collecting info on foreigners, and thus they’re voting from a position of ignorance. At the very least, they should be willing to speak out and demand the same data that Wyden and Udall are asking for: an estimate as to how many Americans have had data exposed under this bill. If it really is supposed to only focus on foreigners, but millions of Americans have had their info accessed, that seems like a problem that should be addressed, rather than one that should be swept under the rug, as most in the Senate seem interested in doing.