U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a persistent advocate in the Senate for Americans' privacy rights, today voted against a straight reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008 -- which gave the federal government legal authority to eavesdrop on domestic communications without a warrant. The law permits wiretaps directed at foreign nationals abroad, although the communications intercepted by law enforcement may also include U.S. citizens. Senator Coons was one of 23 senators -- including Democrats and Republicans -- to vote against the measure.
"Defending our national security and protecting our civil liberties need not be mutually exclusive," Senator Coons said. "There is no question that the speed and complexity of emerging threats around the world has created a very real threat to our security, but our government's power to conduct warrantless surveillance is one that must be closely monitored. The requirement that the government get a warrant before intruding on an American's privacy is central to our justice system, but right now, Americans are being kept in the dark about how powers under the FISA Amendments Act are being used. That's simply not the right balance for this country."
"The bill the Senate considered today was substantially weaker on privacy protections than the version of the bill we passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee in September," Senator Coons said. "This version, which was written in the House of Representatives as a blanket extension of the program, abdicated Congress' responsibility to understand and review how the intelligence community is implementing the most potentially problematic aspects of the law. The intelligence community is thwarting Congress' ability to have an informed debate over what are very real concerns about how the government is reading our email, listening to our phone calls, and intercepting our text messages. By blindly extending the FISA Amendments Act, Congress is allowing Americans to be kept in the dark for another five years at least."
Senator Coons spoke about the legislation on the Senate floor on Thursday, urging his colleagues to vote for a series of amendments that would have strengthened privacy protections for Americans. "A right to private communications, free from the prying eyes and ears of the government, should be the rule, not the exception for American citizens on American soil," he said in his remarks, which can be found here: http://1.usa.gov/ZEli97.
Senator Coons cosponsored and voted for three amendments to the reauthorization measure to strengthen the privacy protections in the underlying FISA Amendments Act, which was passed in 2008 and significantly widened the intelligence community's surveillance authority. They included:
An amendment containing pro-privacy modifications approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in September of this year. This amendment would have required generalized reporting of whether and how surveillance under the FISA Amendments Act protects or infringes on American privacy interests. The amendment also would have accelerated the FISA Amendments Act's sunset from 2017 to 2015 to bring it in line with other original FISA provisions and the USA PATRIOT Act. The amendment was not adopted.
An amendment from Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to declassify the FISA Court's opinions on the statutory limitations on surveillance conducted under FISA Amendments Act. Lawmakers and the public are currently in the dark about how the FISA Court enforces rules meant to limit and minimalize surveillance under the FISA Amendments Act. The amendment included safeguards to ensure sensitive information was not released in the declassification process. The amendment was not adopted.
An amendment from Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to shed light on the practical consequences of FISA Amendments Act surveillance by requiring the Director of National Intelligence to report on the general scope and manner of its usage. At present, no statistics about FISA Amendments Act surveillance have been made available. The amendment was not adopted.
"The FISA Amendments Act gave the intelligence community broad powers to conduct surveillance, but required too little public disclosure of how those powers would be used," Senator Coons said Friday. "We don't know how often they are used, let alone how often they are abused. It is not acceptable for the intelligence community to ask us to surrender our civil liberties and then refuse to tell us without any specificity why we must do so or how they use that power. We can review implementation of the bill in a way that protects citizens from overreach while protecting national security, but Congress has abdicated its role in doing so and retained the "trust us' system for warrantless wiretaps."