Photo Caption: Whistleblower Mark Klein provided this photo of a secret room in a San Francisco AT&T switching center, which housed data-mining equipment that enables the government to spy on electronic communications.
The House on Wednesday reauthorized for five years broad electronic eavesdropping powers that legalized and expanded the George W. Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.
The FISA Amendments Act, (.pdf) which is expiring at year’s end, allows the government to electronically eavesdrop on Americans’ phone calls and e-mails without a probable-cause warrant so long as one of the parties to the communication is believed outside the United States. The communications may be intercepted “to acquire foreign intelligence information.”
The government has also interpreted the law to mean that as long as the real target is al-Qaida, the government can wiretap purely domestic e-mails and phone calls without getting a warrant from a judge. That’s according to David Kris, a former top anti-terrorism attorney at the Justice Department.
The measure is sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and the Obama administration has called its passage a top intelligence priority. (.pdf) The bill generally requires the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court to rubber-stamp terror-related electronic surveillance requests that ensnare Americans’ communications.
The government does not have to identify the target or facility to be monitored. It can begin surveillance a week before making the request, and the surveillance can continue during the appeals process if, in a rare case, the secret FISA court rejects the surveillance application. The court’s rulings are not public.
The vote was 301-118 in favor of passage, with 111 Democrats and seven Republicans voting no.
Smith, while imploring the House to pass the measure, said the FISA Amendments Act “is one of the most important votes we cast in this Congress.” Terrorists, he added, “are committed to the destruction of our country.”
The House version extends the spy powers until Dec. 31, 2017. The similar bill in the Senate, which in May passed the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, extends the powers for three years.
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