WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) – Congress has voted to renew the government’s authority to monitor electronic communications of foreigners abroad.
The Senate on Friday approved a five-year extension by a 73-23 vote and sent the bill to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.
This comes after delaying the final vote on whether or not to add oversight and privacy safeguards to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) amendments that allows federal agencies to conduct warrantless wiretapping.
The program began shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks under the Bush administration, and without congressional authorization. Many critics and whistle-blowers have alleged that the law has enabled many law-abiding Americans’ communications to be included in the international electronic dragnet.
The CIA and National Security Agency use the program to collect intelligence on Americans who are communicating abroad with foreign “targets.”
“Everyone becomes suspect when big brother is listening,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said recently while arguing against renewing the FAA in the House of Representatives.
Should the Senate not re-new the FAA before Dec. 31, the bill will expire and the warrantless wiretapping provisions will be erased. On Thursday, members of the Senate met in Washington to begin discussing the act, but the final vote was moved to Friday.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was introduced and created in 1978 by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to authorize surveillance to protect national security. To get a warrant from this court, the Justice Department would ordinarily submit an application to show that the target is an “agent of a foreign power,” essentially a suspected spy or terrorist.
At the time of legislation, President Bush said, “If al-Qaeda or their associates are making calls into the United States or out of the United States, we want to know what they’re saying,” NPR reports.
Earlier this year, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told Wired Magazine that, “If no one will even estimate how many Americans have had their communications collected under this law then it is all the more important that Congress act to close the ‘back door searches’ loophole, to keep the government from searching for Americans’ phone calls and emails without a warrant.”
Civil liberties critics argue that the lack of judicial oversight means the program is open to abuse, and could be used to monitor everything from protest groups to private conversations. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights have filed suit against the government on behalf of journalists, scholars and lawyers who fear their communications have been monitored, because they regularly are in contact with people who could be under suspicion.
In 2004, FISA was amended to include a “lone wolf” provision. A “lone wolf” is a non-US person who engages in or prepares for international terrorism. The provision amended the definition of “foreign power” to permit the FISA courts to issue surveillance and physical search orders without having to find a connection between the “lone wolf” and a foreign government or terrorist group.