Fixing the Surveillance Law
Byline: Russ Feingold,, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Before leaving town for the August recess, Congress bowed to pressure from the administration and significantly expanded the government's ability to eavesdrop without a court-approved warrant. The situation was eerily similar to enactment of the Patriot Act in 2001, when Congress rushed through a bill that gave the executive branch overly intrusive powers.
Because the new law expires in February, Congress now has the opportunity to fix its mistakes. This time, Congress should pass a bill that lets the government spy on suspected terrorists but also protects the communications of law-abiding Americans. And it should reject efforts to block the courts from ruling on the legality of the administration's warrantless wiretapping program.
Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) almost 30 years ago to prevent the domestic spying abuses we saw in the 1970s. New legislation is needed to make it clear that FISA doesn't require the government to get a warrant to listen to communications of foreign terrorists overseas.
Every member of Congress agrees with this goal. Unfortunately, the bill recently approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee goes far beyond fixing that problem. It allows the government to listen to communications between Americans in the United States and their friends and colleagues abroad, even if no one involved has any connection to terrorism or any other criminal activity.
The government could secretly listen to an American reporter talking to sources overseas, or read e-mails between an American and relatives abroad. These aren't hypothetical concerns. Because the government will be acquiring communications in the United States without a warrant, it is almost certain it will pick up communications involving Americans at home.
The Intelligence Committee bill is not as bad as the law we passed over the summer, but it still gives the executive branch too much power. The government has to convince the secret FISA court it is targeting non-Americans "reasonably believed" to be overseas. But there's a major catch. Under the new bill, the government can begin its surveillance before it has gotten approval from the FISA court, and it can use any information it obtains even if the court decides the request is unlawful. …