Today, the House will vote on the extension of the FISA Amendments Act, a bill that was well-known to most Americans, especially on the left, in 2008, but which has gotten little if any notice these days. The bill not only granted retroactive immunity to telecom companies that cooperated in the warrantless surveillance of US citizens. It actually greatly expanded that surveillance into a program that is as secretive as it is expansive, as Shahid Buttar explains:
When Congress first voted back in 2008 to give the National Security Agency the power to eavesdrop on any—in other words, every–American without any reason for individual suspicion, it did so without a full picture of what it allowed. Indeed, the full contours of the program remain secret even today [...]
We know that the NSA has violated even this incredibly permissive law, abusing its own powers and the rights of untold numbers of Americans. Our government has admitted to that much, without offering any way to know how widespread those violations have been — or remain.
We know that the executive branch currently interprets parts of other surveillance laws in secret, allowing government activities even beyond the intentions of their authors.
That’s perhaps the most pernicious parts of this. We have received enough hints from Senate Intelligence Committee members Ron Wyden and Mark Udall to know that the somewhat limited surveillance program authored in 2008 has been interpreted into something approaching a mass dragnet of the private communications of US citizens, in the largest data mining operation known to man. The secrecy of the NSA – which extends even to their budget – should generate pause in our elected officials to reauthorize the program. And yet, this bill will probably pass both houses of Congress before the election, with the full support of the President. Wyden has a hold on it for the Senate, but we all know that holds by Democrats are made to be broken, especially when there’s fearmongering about national security on the line.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has responded to critics of the program by saying approximately nothing.
The Obama administration maintains it is unable to say how many times one of the government’s most politically sensitive anti-terrorism surveillance programs — which is up for renewal this week on Capitol Hill — has inadvertently gathered intelligence about U.S. citizens.
In a briefing for reporters on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Tuesday that the program designed to monitor international communications by terrorist suspects has collected an extraordinary amount of valuable intelligence overseas about foreign terrorist suspects while simultaneously protecting civil liberties of Americans [...]
The program “is not a tool for spying on Americans,” said Robert Litt, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“Just trust us,” once again. But if they were to be trusted, they would put out even a limited set of information about the metrics of the program. Only once has the Administration admitted that the program exceeded legal limits, but it claimed that only happened one time. Mm-hm. They actually derived this from a FISA court ruling, not from any of the episodes of data collection on which they surely have records.
Sadly, there’s very little interest in stopping this power outside of a few hardy souls on one side of the aisle and a select set of activists.