By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
ORLANDO — Debts, deficits and doom were recurring themes during the New Year’s Day negotiations to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” but lost among the headlines was the extension of sweeping and expansive surveillance powers granted to the nation’s intelligence agencies during the Bush years.
Along with extending warrantless wiretapping for people suspected of terrorism, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act gives immunity to telecommunications companies that have disclosed private phone records to theNational Security Agency and the FBI.
Both of Florida’s politicians in the upper chamber, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, voted Dec. 28 to extend the bill. President Obama signed it two days later.
The bill codifies certain provisions of the Patriot Act, passed weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and gives the government permission to listen to phone conversations of suspected criminals with international connections.
“I have supported FISA and the FISA Amendments Act because our ability to gather information about known and suspected terrorists has proven instrumental to keeping Americans safe,” Nelson wrote in a letter to constituents earlier this month. “While intelligence and law enforcement agencies need the tools to do that job, it’s also critically important that we protect the rights and privacy of law-abiding citizens.”
Nelson has indicated he disapproves of the retroactive immunity to phone and Internet companies that give private information to law enforcement, but that did not stop him from voting for the bill.
Civil rights advocates believe the bill is too far-reaching in its authority to spy on American nationals at home and abroad, and they have tried to fight it in court.
“The administration needs only to certify that it is not targeting any particular American or person in the U.S.,” explained ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson in a December op-ed piece.
“It can otherwise vacuum up international communications, even when one party is an American in the U.S. and without alleging anyone is actually engaged in terrorism or espionage.”
Richardson goes on to explain the law provides little judicial oversight for wiretapping requests by intelligence agencies, which are granted for up to one year, and raises serious questions about the state of privacy in the ongoing War on Terror.
“To date, no one has received an estimate of how many Americans have been picked up in FAA surveillance or concrete information about how that information is protected once it lands in government hands,” wrote Richardson.
Prior to passage, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul introduced an amendment to “ensure adequate protection of rights under the Fourth Amendment,” protecting American citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. It received 12 supporting votes on the floor.
Similarly, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley offered an amendment to require disclosure of FISA’s activities to Congress, but that also failed to receive a majority of votes.
Rubio and Nelson voted against all amendments to add safeguards to FISA’s renewal but had no additional comments for Florida Watchdog.
Florida’s House delegation voted overwhelmingly in favor of the FISA bill in September. Only Democratic U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson of District 17, Alcee Hastings of District 23and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of District 20 voted against the bill. They could not be reached for comment.
Obama signed the renewal of warrantless spying into law, even though he voiced concerns about the original bill during his initial campaign for president.
“Once I’m sworn in as president,” the presidential candidate wrote in the Huffington Post in July 2008, “I’ll have my Attorney General conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future.”
The law will again be up for renewal in 2017.