The Senate has reportedly renewed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act in a 73-23 vote on Friday, now signed by President Barack Obama.
The FISA bill was originally established in 1978 and signed by President Jimmy Carter. It "prescribes procedures for the physical and electronic surveillance and collection of foreign intelligence information between foreign powers and agents of foreign powers." It was amended in 2001 by the USA Patriot Act, and then amended again and passed into law in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration to allow warrantless wiretapping.
"A bill to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to establish a procedure for authorizing certain acquisitions of foreign intelligence, and for other purposes," the measure read.
In essence, the government's warrantless wiretapping program grants qualified authorities the ability to tap into any phone conversation without the need for a warrant until 2017. That means all international calls, texts and emails sent and received via a mobile device in the United States is open for government snooping. What the Senate has approved is an extended lifespan of the FISA Amendments Act for an additional five years, as it was set to expire on December 31, 2012.
"The FISA Amendments Act continues to be controversial," said the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on Thursday. "In brief, the law allows the government to get secret FISA court orders—orders that do not require probable cause like regular warrants—for any emails or phone calls going to and from overseas. The communications only have to deal with 'foreign intelligence information,' a broad term that can mean virtually anything. And one secret FISA order can be issued against groups or categories of people—potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of Americans at once."
In 2008, the Bush administration called for an overhaul of the 30-year-old FISA law, calling it outdated. The Administration said that given the heavy use of email and smartphones, it was unrealistic to obtain a warrant for every wiretap, and could undermine national security. Critics said the amendment to allow warrantless wiretapping violated the FISA law, but President Bush cited "wartime powers" as his golden ticket to eavesdropping.
During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Barak Obama along with other critics argued that the government went too far in violating American's privacy. Now the government has another five years of warrantless snooping if President Obama signs the bill.
"This is the last oportunity for the next five years for the Congress to exercise a modest measure of real oversight over this intelligence surveillance law," said Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), referring to the new 2017 expiration date. "It is not real oversight when the United States Congress cannot get a yes or no answer to the question of whether an estimate currently exists as to whether law abiding Americans have had their phone calls and emails swept up under the FISA law."
"About the only good part in the original FISA Amendments Act was the provision that stated it would expire after four years so Congress could fully debate its use and abuse before reauthorizing, if reauthorization was even necessary," the EFF said before the final vote on Friday. "Unfortunately, Congress has been resisting the debate, and the new bill would extend the FAA for five more years. That means the law would not sunset again until President Obama is out of office."
Guess it's time to revert back to paper cups and a ball of string.