US House supports 5 more years of foreign surveillance

Monitoring, if passed by the Senate, to continue until 2017
Monitoring, if passed by the Senate, to continue until 2017

While everyone is concentrating on whether or not President Barack Obama will get four more years in the White House, the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012 cleared the U.S. House of Representatives this week, giving the controversial act an additional five years.

This extension of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which was due to expire on Dec. 31, 2012, passed on a 301 to 118 vote. Since 70 percent of representatives (227 Republicans and 74 Democrats) voted in favor of the bill, it exceeded the simple majority required to pass.

"The Act allows intelligence professionals to more quickly and effectively monitor terrorist communications, while protecting the civil liberties of Americans," states to the bill's summary. The text attempts to make the case by illustrating foreign surveillance before the FISA Amendment.

"Admiral McConnell stated that the Intelligence Community was not collecting approximately two-thirds of the foreign intelligence information that it collected prior to legal interpretations that required the government to obtain individualized FISA court orders for overseas surveillance."

The bill cites changes in technology as justification: "This is contrary to what Congress intended when it enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978 and had come about due to changes in telecommunication technology."

Dubbed 'warrantless wiretap bill' by opponents

Critics have long decried the FISA Amendment as an overreach by the federal government and a violation of citizens' Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The provisions of the FISA Amendment and its 2012 extension are a work around of The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. That bill prevented the government from using its vast resources to spy on Americans in the wake of Richard Nixon's involvement in Watergate.

This has led opponents to routinely refer to the FISA Amendment as a "warrantless wiretap bill" and a spy program in which citizens can be unfairly targeted. On the latter criticism, dissenting Congressmen decry the lack of data available on how many citizens have been affected.

Backers, on the other hand, simply use its official name and point to the fact that the bill "requires court orders to target Americans for foreign intelligence surveillance, no matter where they are, and requires court review of the procedures used to protect information about Americans."

On to the Senate

Following its passage on the House floor, the FISA Amendment of 2012 is due for a vote by the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The Senate, however, rubber stamped the FISA Amendment of 2008 with 22 Democrats and 46 Republicans voting in the affirmative. The only dissenters were the 27 Democrats.

On top of its bipartisan support, President Obama is in favor of the Bush-era Amendment and voted for the bill as a Senator in 2008. Prior to that vote, however, he opposed the Act because it retroactively granted immunity for telecommunications companies.

Via The Verge, H.R. 5949, GovTrack (1), (2), (3)

Matt Swider