I watched CSPAN2 Thursday morning. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t playing a drinking game. And I’m not turned on by monotonous politispeak masqueraded as sagacity. Rather, I was interested in how debate would proceed concerning the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act, a bill originally passed in 2008 that allows for wiretapping of emails, phone calls and other communications going to or coming from overseas. The wiretapping is carried out by way of secret FISA court orders, which, unlike regular warrants, do not require any probable cause.
I was not disappointed by the debate. Listening to the grand majority of the Senate debate this bill was like watching a live-action version of “Hungry, Hungry Hippos” where all of the marbles are the Fourth Amendment.
The original domestic spying bill, which also granted retroactive immunity to telecommunications that had participated in the Bush administration’s illegal, warrantless wiretapping program, was reauthorized easily, causing no blip on the political radar. Thanks largely to the much more publicized conundrum of how Washingtonian compromise can prevent us from falling off a fiscal cliff and how our fizzy lifting drink of obscene discretionary spending has us floating dangerously close to our next debt ceiling, no attention was paid to the FISA vote.
In true bipartisan spirit, the bill was passed without a single, vital amendment attached, reauthorizing its powers for another five years. And such a reauthorization continues to pose a momentous problem for civil liberties and privacy concerns. As the American Civil Liberties Union notes, “The law’s effect — and indeed, the law’s main purpose — is to give the government nearly unfettered access to Americans’ international communications.”
Thanks to today’s reauthorization, such access is free from those pesky constraints of checks, balances, transparency or reasonable limits on government authority. This, in essence, codifies secret law that leaves Americans unaware of the act’s scope, since little information exists as to how intelligence organizations are interpreting the bill. Not to mention how notoriously deferential FISA courts have been to law enforcement powers, becoming a mere legal speed bump in our already extensive wiretapping road trip.
During debate, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, addressed the concerns of some members of the Senate by warning that not reauthorizing the FISA bill would lead to grave national security threats from bad people who hate freedom and liberty and rainbows and unicorns. It’s hard to monger fear as well as Feinstein can. She insisted that the oversight measures already embedded in the bill were sufficient, when, in actuality, they simply broaden the already expansive powers. That rhetoric was enough to ensure 73 yea votes.
By and large, it was debate that would have Sen. Obama circa 2007 rolling over in his grave. It was debate that joined conservative Democrats with Republicans to make sure President Obama could adequately maintain such overreaching powers. It was debate that showed that many of our elected officials fail to represent the rights of the people they are meant to serve. Instead, they show that in reality, their spines are made from telecom lobbyist checks and National Security Agency business cards. Individual liberties certainly cannot hold a candle to those.
When the consensus is that search and seizure is no longer unreasonable, the whims of our politicians begin to circumvent the thrust of our Constitution.
Chris DiNardo is opinion editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.