Few Americans know how, when and why government agents monitor their phone calls and email accounts, and that might not change anytime soon. On Thursday, discussions began in Washington about renewing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Since last amended in 2008, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, has received very little publicity. The reason by-and-large is that even the elected lawmakers chosen to represent the American people aren’t kept privy on the government’s use of some problematic provisions within the bill. Under certain FISA act amendments (FAAs), the US National Security Agency is allowed to listen in on any correspondence that exits America that is meant for ears abroad, either by phone, email or other. And although US President Barack Obama said he’d abolish some of those dangerous laws while campaigning in 2008, Congress is currently in the midst of considering renewing FISA for another few years.
If this week’s arguments against FISA prove to be futile, the federal government will once more be authorized a blanketing approval to investigate anyone they want, without a warrant. The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 13-2 last week to allow for Congress to hear arguments for a five-year extension. A sticking point among many opponents of the act, though, is that even lawmakers aren't allowed insider access to the agency's program.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a DC-based watchdog group that advocates for Internet freedoms, reported live from Thursday morning’s FISA amendment arguments from Capitol Hill. According to the foundation, testimonies from congressmen and private sector opponents of FISA alike were introduced during the hearing and might help lawmakers reconsider the powers they current bestow in the NSA.
“Why can't we know how many people are affected by FISA amendment act in the US? This kind of vagueness creates suspicions,” the EFF quotes Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan). Even before Thursday’s hearing, however, Rep. Conyers has adamantly opposed a FISA renewal.
“We’ve been told that we can’t even tell how many people are being subjected to this process located in the United States, and that we don’t know and they can’t tell us,” Rep. Conyers recently said, reports Raw Story. “I think we can get a little bit closer. There can be some reasonableness. It’s this kind of vagueness that creates in those of us in the Congress, suspicions that are negative rather than suspicions that are positive.”
“So far, members of Congress have been surprisingly critical of the FAA during this hearing. Will this translate into reform?” the EFF asked over Twitter on Thursday.
Elsewhere on the stand, the EFF tweets that American Civil Liberties Union President Jameel Jaffer told the committee members,” Congress needs to ask questions. We can't just re-authorize FAA, citizens are being unlawfully affected.”
Since being passed, Jaffer claims that journalists, congressmen and Supreme Court justices have been wiretapped without a warrant because of far-reaching amendments under FISA that allow for broad and bendable interpretation. In 2009, the New York Times even revealed that the powers invested in the NSA through FISA had at one point allowed for NSA officials to end up with the personal emails of former President Bill Clinton. Although amendments of FISA allow the agency to snoop through the private files of people alleged to have ties with terror suspects overseas, its broadness can very well allow for just about anyone to become a suspect, whether or not the government even planned for it.
“For the Hill, the issue is a sense of scale, about how much domestic e-mail collection is acceptable,” a former intelligence official told the Times in 2009 on condition of anonymity. “It’s a question of how many mistakes they can allow.”
Even just recently, Democratic Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) demanded that the White House reveal information discussing how many Americans have unknowingly been monitored through FISA amendments, to which National Intelligence Director James Clapper responded, “It is not reasonably possible to identify the number of people located in the United States whose communications may have been reviewed under the authority.”
Although the unconstitutionality of the act is being argued in Washington this week, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will lend itself to changes in FISA. On Thursday, in fact, the committee’s chairman said that the secretive nature of how the government conducts surveillance through the legislation should continue as is, because any more details disclosed outside of the NSA might aid terrorists, reports the EFF.
The ACLU reports that, every day, the NSA intercepts and stores around 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, text and other electronic communications thanks to laws like FISA. To put it into perspective, they add, “that’s equivalent to 138 million books, every 24 hours.”