Debate looms on US electronic surveillance law

 

Washington, USA

A measure granting the government expansive power to intercept electronic communications in the United States without a warrant is set to expire this month, setting up a sharp debate in the Senate over how to balance privacy against national security.

The government uses the measure, contained in a law known as the FISA Amendments Act, to intercept e-mails and telephone calls of foreigners located overseas under a blanket approval issued once a year by a special court. But communications of U.S. citizens talking with the foreigners also are being scooped up.

The intelligence community argues that the measure is essential to protect against foreign threats and has made renewing the law its top legislative priority. The House approved a five-year extension in September by a vote of 301 to 118. The Senate must vote by the end of the year or the authority expires.

Opposition has surfaced among a small, bipartisan group of senators worried that Americans engaged in harmless communications with foreigners could be monitored without a warrant or other privacy protections.

Under the law, a special court whose proceedings are secret issues a yearly certification that permits the government to monitor the e-mails and phone calls of foreigners if the government can satisfy the court that its procedures will target people located overseas and ensure the privacy of U.S. citizens caught in the monitoring. Targeting the communications of a U.S. citizen or anyone inside the United States requires a warrant.

One of the complaints of the senators and civil liberties advocates is that the government refuses to disclose the number of U.S. citizens and residents whose communications have been collected or reviewed under the law.

"You have this potentially large pile of communications and nobody knows how many Americans are in that pile," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.

Wyden has threatened to block a vote on reauthorization unless Senate leaders agree to a debate on changes that would add safeguards for U.S. persons.

Twelve other senators, including conservative Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, have joined Wyden in pushing to require the government to provide an estimate of how many communications involving U.S. citizens have been collected under Section 702 of the statute. The senators also want the government to obtain a court-approved warrant before deliberately searching electronic data for individual Americans.

"The government ought not be able to search through that database for information about a U.S. citizen without a court order because that becomes akin to a warrantless wiretap," Lee said in an interview.

The law was passed in 2008 as an update to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It expanded the government's power to conduct electronic surveillance on U.S. soil for foreign targets overseas without individual warrants.

The Obama administration, like the George W. Bush administration, has defended the program as vital to gathering quickly information about the plans and identities of terrorists and other threats.

"There is no question that we've gotten valuable information that has led to intelligence and national security successes," said Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in a press call this year. "This would really create a risk for our security if we lost this capability." He cited "specific incidents both involving terrorist attacks and other kinds of threats where we have been able to thwart them or gain insight into them as a result of this collection activity," but he declined to elaborate.

Litt said estimating the number of communications by U.S. citizens collected "incidentally" under FISA cannot be done with any degree of accuracy. But he said the law is not "a tool for spying on Americans."

Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director, countered that the law provides the government with too much leeway. "It's a law that gives the government almost unchecked power to monitor Americans' communications," he said in an interview. "It's indefensible that anyone's even thinking about reauthorizing it without asking questions about the law's use."

The ACLU sued the government over the law's constitutionality. A federal judge threw out the suit, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit reinstated it. The case was argued in October before the Supreme Court, which is considering only whether the plaintiffs have standing to proceed with their challenge.

The procedures involved in monitoring foreign communications remain largely hidden. Officials in the communications industry said the government gives companies the e-mail addresses, phone numbers, user names and other identifiers of foreign targets to tap.

The lists could run to dozens or hundreds of identities, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details. The companies divert electronic copies of the communications in real time to a special FBI facility in Northern Virginia. In the case of e-mail, the government may receive virtual replicas of people's entire in-boxes, the officials said.

The National Security Agency stores the data for translation and analysis. Automated tools help analysts find links in the communications among, say, the e-mails of five members of a suspected terrorist cell.

"Some sniffer is looking for similarities among their contacts," said a former federal official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity. "If all five are talking to a sixth, that sixth is going to be a person of interest."

The law allows collection of communications across a broad spectrum of "foreign intelligence" topics and threats, which include nuclear proliferation, foreign diplomats and extremist groups. Critics say the wide range increases the chances that Americans who are not targets of surveillance will have their communications picked up.

Intelligence officials say a warrant requirement would be burdensome and unnecessary, given that the information has been lawfully collected. They note that they have regularly briefed Congress on the program's operations.

Their reports to Congress have identified no cases of intentional or systematic misuse, according to a Senate Judiciary Committee review. But Wyden said the special court has already found that the government's efforts to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens failed on at least one occasion.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform