FISA Amendment Act Compromises Business Privacy

Here we go again: another federal law threatening our already waning civil liberties. On June 20, the House approved a 114-page bill (293-129) amending the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA) for the fourth time in a decade. Put up for the vote after the July 4th holiday, the Senate approved the amendment on July 9, barring complete opposition by Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), which delayed the bill’s passing by approximately two weeks. President Bush eagerly signed it into law yesterday, proving a clear victory for his cause. Touted as the FISA Amendment Act of 2008, this new “Compromise” is essentially the reinstatement of last year’s Protect America Act, albeit with a few big tweaks in the Fed’s favor. The portion of the amendment garnering the most attention and outrage to date is the immunity granted to telecommunication companies that provided the Bush administration with access to phone and email records of thousands of American citizens post-9/11. This retroactive feature nullifies more than 40 lawsuits filed against the telecommunications companies— with AT&T topping the list—by groups and individuals who think the Bush administration illegally monitored their phone calls or e-mails. Sure this aspect is newsworthy, but the remainder of the amendment, which has received little commentary, deserves our undivided attention as well. One might imagine that most Americans would be fearful of yet another bill allowing the federal government to spy on us in the wake of the backlash to the U.S. Patriot Act of 2001 and the Protect America Act of 2007. Sugar-coating the tapping reality, the compromise requires FISA court permission to eavesdrop on those believed to be “agent[s] of foreign power” for up to one year, regardless of citizenship. Further perusal of the amendment, however, reveals the NSA’s permission to spy without a court order in emergency situations, providing they file required “certification” paperwork—describing the surveillance plan and measures they will take to “minimize” the interception of additional Americans’ communication—within seven days. It is possible for the authorization process of the certification to take up to four months (30 days for the court to certify the surveillance; 30 days for the government to comply with any problems found with the certification paperwork; and 60 days to appeal a FISA Court disapproval) wherein surveillance is allowed to occur free and clear. Blurring the lines of judicial oversight, a FISA Court judge, when granting authorization, is not given details about how or where surveillance will occur. They are limited to verifying that the certification paperwork “contains all the required elements,” the targets were targeted properly, and compromising non-targets’ communication will be “minimized.” The act states that the NSA will not be allowed to target Americans living in the U.S. or overseas without Court approval but rather “people reasonably believed to be located outside the United States.” If the target is a U.S. citizen living in the States or not, the NSA must prove to the FISA Court that the person satisfies “agent of foreign power” status. Despite this somewhat reasonable sounding verbiage, Americans may be more at risk for surveillance than we think. Most likely to be impacted by this bill are those doing business and communicating internationally. Telecommunication between parties leaving and entering the U.S. has the potential to be intercepted. While the narrow surveillance of being able to target one person has its restrictions, the act does not protect Americans from blanket surveillance. In order to eavesdrop on one person or a clustered group of people, the FISA Court may authorize the surveillance of all international correspondence in a particular city or regional area. “The new law allows the mass acquisition of Americans’ international e-mails and telephone calls,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project. “The administration has argued that the law is necessary to address the threat of terrorism, but the truth is that the law sweeps much more broadly and implicates all kinds of communications that have nothing to do with terrorism or criminal activity of any kind.” At the end of the day, the FISA Compromise appears to be one more way the current administration is using the threat of terror to erode our civil liberties. Democratic leaders have gone out of their way to paint this new law as a compromise but at the cost of the privacy of millions of American citizens. “A democratic system depends on the rule of law, and not even the president or Congress can authorize a law that violates core constitutional principles,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The only thing compromised in this so-called ‘compromise’ law is the Constitution.”

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  1. Mike Cane Says:

    Dig it:

    Ralph Nader: FISA Music Video

    Be seeing you!

  2. Anita Tartaro Says:

    The article, “FISA Amendment Act Compromises Business Privacy”, was not only wonderfully written, but it also has to make one wonder where this country is headed to next. Thankfully, we in the United States have only a few months left of the control and misuse of power freak in the White House. Kudos to Laurel Petriello for writing such an eye-opening article.

  3. Patricia Squicciarini Says:

    While I busily prepared for 4th of July in my community and prepared for our village festival, fireworks, and parade, it appears my government was moving in the shadows to establish more of a “Big Brother” presence in my life. Where have all the watch dogs gone? Where are our elected officials? Is everyone sleeping at the switch? I’m greatly impressed and grateful for Laptop and this article by Laurel Petriello. I am well read and try to stay current on issues especially related to civil liberties and our privacy rights, especially since 9/11. Somehow, I missed this and now through Laptop it appears I have another obviously well informed voice in Ms. Petriello to help me in my pursuit for more information and even the truth. I don’t think our forefathers would be very proud of the actions depicted in this article. Thank you and continue to keep vigilant.

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