Remember the battle over amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act a few years ago? Well those amendments are set to sunset at the end of the year so Congress has been trying to pass a bill to reauthorize them without any changes to the law. The House passed the package in September and the Senate started voting on it Thursday night.
The Senate leadership wanted to pass the whole thing with no debate and no amendments, but political pressure forced them to schedule a whopping day and a half of debate. Several important amendments were considered on Thursday and Friday and all three were rejected. The first was an amendment proposed by Sen. Patrick Leahy to have the new law sunset in three years instead of five; it failed 52-38 with ten abstentions.
The second was an amendment proposed by Sen. Jeff Merkley that would have required the publishing of all legal opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that interpreted the government’s authority under FISA (subject to redaction of classified information, of course); it failed 54-37 with nine abstentions.
The third was an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul that would have reiterated that all communications between Americans are protected by the 4th Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures, including those that are held by private companies like Google or the telecoms. That one was voted down by a staggering 79-12 vote with nine abstentions. Imagine that, only 12 votes for upholding the 4th Amendment.
The fourth, from Sen. Ron Wyden, that would require the NSA to make a general estimate of the number of Americans whose communications have been intercepted, something they have so far refused to do on the perverse grounds that doing so would violate the privacy of the people being spied on. That amendment would also require a warrant before any communication is intercepted. That amendment was rejected 52-43 with five abstentions. Congress doesn’t even want to know how many people were spied on without a warrant.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has urged that all of these amendments, even with their tiny bit of protection for privacy, be rejected. So has Sen. Harry Reid. And they got their way, with the final bill passing 73-23 with four abstentions, with virtually no debate and not a single safeguard for our privacy added to the bill.
As I have been arguing for years, when it comes to the National Security State, the Republicans and Democrats are virtually indistinguishable. A handful of legislators in both parties favor complying with the constitution, while the leadership of both parties and the White House under both Bush and Obama want the executive to have limitless authority to spy on anyone they want with no meaningful oversight.