Senate Speeds Through FISA Amendments

Senate Speeds Through FISA Amendments January 1, 2013

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.

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  • We are now at a point where the police/intelligence community/FBI can be used to stifle political opponents. As soon as one party or the other starts throwing their political opponents in jail, we’ll have a full-blown putsch. Congress has now set the US up to become a dictatorship.

  • macallan

    So they have a collective case of KGB-envy? Damn those commie bastards.

  • The president signed–no surprise. This really, really sucks.

  • macallan

    Wait a minute, Rand Paul of all people is (one of) the voice(s) of reason here?! What’s next – flying pigs? Broken clock syndrome?

  • Doubting Thomas

    I really hate the latest layout of the ftb. I need to enlarge the text to read it and with the info panels on the left side it pushes what I am interested in off the screen to the right.

    I’d send this as an email but can’t find a link to who to send it to.

  • uncephalized

    @Doubting Thomas (and Ed) I agree. The new layout is jarring and on a tablet or smartphone the content isn’t readable until you zoom in on the right column, which is halfway off the screen. I much preferred having the info bar on the right…

  • davidct

    As long as people are kept feeling insecure, they will always put personal rights in second place. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with Paul Ryan. This is an important issue and the media has done little to report on it. Actually the issue has seen more coverage in Al Jazeera.

  • tfkreference

    The mobile layout, however, is much improved (thanks, Ed). To switch to it, click the tablet icon on the title bar.

    In mobile, you can hide the black bar across the top (I don’t remember how–click something on the bar and look for a check box.)

    As for the topic, thanks for reporting this. With all the attention on the fiscal cliff, I didn’t hear about it.

  • abb3w

    @0, Ed Brayton:

    As I have been arguing for years, when it comes to the National Security State, the Republicans and Democrats are virtually indistinguishable.

    First vote (#232 in session 2 of the 112nd Senate, yea supporting civil liberties) yea-nay-nonvoting:

    D: 36-11-5

    R: 2-41-5

    Second vote (#233, yea supporting civil liberties):

    D: 34-14-5

    R: 3-40-4

    Third vote (#234, yea supporting civil liberties):

    D: 9-39-5

    R: 3-40-4

    Fourth vote (#235, yea supporting civil liberties):

    D: 38-12-3

    R: 5-40-2

    Fifth vote (#236, nay supporting civil liberties):

    D: 31-20-2

    R: 42-3-2

    (Source for the raw data; I’m counting Sanders and Liberman as Democrats to simplify. It’s possible I miscounted one of those, so feel free to re-check all those numbers.)

    The Democrats are far from perfect, but if you can’t distinguish between the two parties, you’re not paying close attention.

  • Brad

    @ macallan, davidct

    LIbertarians occasionally get stuff right by accident, especially on privacy.

  • @macallan #4: It’s my understanding that these sort of civil rights & liberties issues are the few things Rand Paul is somewhat consistently right about. I give grudging kudos for that much.

    @abb3w #9: I was wondering about the spread. Looks like the Democrats are still better overall. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be enough good ones on this front. 🙁

  • With all the attention on the fiscal cliff, I didn’t hear about it.

    Keep your eye on the circus; the real dirty work gets done quietly when the cameras and lights are off.

  • naturalcynic

    @ Brad: NO. They get privacy rights correct on principle, just as they get so many things wrong on principle.

  • Freeman

    One wonders what policies the two major parties are getting *right* where the libertarians are wrong.

    Any of you libertarian-bashers care to enlighten me on that? So far y’all sound like fundamentalists criticizing atheists — all denigration and no substance.

  • abb3w

    Politically, Libertarians in general tend to be under-supportive of the social safety net — an “I’ve got mine” expectation of the status quo as norm. They seem to tend to consider the harms of social coercion as a response to prejudicial inequities (racism/sexism) — a design choice dependent on the basis for values and underlying is-ought bridge. I associate this stance and libertarianism in general to a low-RWA high-SDO mindset, and in turn the high-SDO is correlated to certain other traits I consider undesirable for societal life expectancy. They also tend to be less “green” than “brown” on their environmental stance, which I consider similarly detrimental.

    There’s some support for the correlations in the sociology literature for the empirical correlations on attitudes, which I can try and dredge up if you’re really interested in that. Whether either is “bad” or not is again dependent on underlying is-ought bridge, and a separate question.

    Ed’s an outlier on both the prejudice and environmentalism questions… which might be part of why he voted Green rather than Libertarian this year.

  • abb3w

    Stupid cold meds. That should be “They seem to tend to consider the harms of social coercion as a response to prejudicial inequities (racism/sexism) a cure worse than the disease” et cetera.