U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) voted in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday for legislation that would have prohibited the U.S. government from using communications obtained through wiretaps and foreign intelligence operations to search for information on U.S. citizens without a warrant. The legislation, which failed by at 15-3 vote, was an amendment to S.3276, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act Sunset Extension Act of 2012.
"The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans' right to privacy and is meant to prevent the government from searching or seizing private communications without a warrant," Senator Coons said. "The FISA Amendments Act is an important and valuable law for our national security, but its use needs to be watched closely to prevent abuses like the ones we saw in 2008. Congress has a responsibility to scrutinize the implementation of sensitive laws like FISA and, especially when their sunsets come up, use what we've learned to make them better."
The FISA Amendments Act was first passed in 2008 to limit the abuses in foreign intelligence collection during the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretap program. The Act allows the U.S. intelligence community to conduct domestic surveillance transiting the United States and targeted at terrorists and foreign agents abroad. The original legislation is set to expire at the end of 2012, and the Sunset Extension Act would extend that until 2015 or 2017 (depending on the outcome of future votes) and require additional oversight by the Intelligence Community Inspector General needed due, in part, to reports of abuses under the FISA Amendments Act in 2008.
One amendment to the Sunset Extension Act considered by the Judiciary Committee on Thursday was introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), and would have explicitly prohibited the government from searching data lawfully collected under the FISA Amendments Act for another purpose to obtain the communications of a specific U.S. citizen without a court order. Senator Coons joined Senator Lee and Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in voting for the amendment, citing the importance of protecting the constitutional rights of Americans to privacy, and against unlawful search and seizure.