Warrantless wiretaps expanded
A surveillance law pushed through Congress and signed by Bush on Sunday will allow the government to monitor phone calls and e-mails without a warrant.
The US government now has greater authority to eavesdrop without warrants on American citizens' telephone calls and e-mails after President Bush signed new surveillance legislation into law on Sunday. Authored largely by the White House, the new law, officials say, provides a legal framework for warrantless monitoring that was already being conducted by the National Security Agency outside of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Many Democrats and civil rights activists argue that this new law erodes fundamental American liberties and privacy rights. Supporters contend that it's vital to fend off potential terrorist attacks.Skip to next paragraph
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Under FISA, which has been amended at least eight times since 2001, a secret national security court issued the necessary warrants for various government offices to conduct wiretaps and other surveillance in the US, reports The Baltimore Sun. Under the new law, provided that the government is targeting a foreigner talking to a US citizen, no warrant is needed.
The change in the law was, in part, a response to the 2005 revelation of a program monitoring conversations without a warrant between foreigners and the United States that were believed to have a connection to al-Qaida. President Bush reluctantly agreed earlier this year to obtain a warrant from the secret court for what Bush now calls the Terrorist Surveillance Program. But the administration had since sought to reduce the role of the court in the process.
The new law expands the eavesdropping powers Bush claimed he had the right to exercise with his Terrorist Surveillance Program in two major ways, reports The Boston Globe.
First, the law requires telecommunications companies to make their facilities available for government wiretaps, and it grants them immunity from lawsuits for complying. Under the old program, such companies participated only voluntarily – and some were sued for allegedly violating their customers' privacy.
Second, Bush has said his original surveillance program was restricted to calls and e-mails involving a suspected terrorist, but the new law has no such limit. Instead, it allows executive-branch agencies to conduct oversight-free surveillance of all international calls and e-mails, including those with Americans on the line, with the sole requirement that the intelligence-gathering is "directed at a person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States." There is no requirement that either caller be a suspected terrorist, spy, or criminal.
Although the new law potentially allows the government to listen in on conversations of Americans calling from overseas (e.g., an American in Paris calling an American in Chicago), White House officials emphasized that the program is directed at foreign suspects, not Americans, reports The New York Times. "It's foreign, that's the point," Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman said. "What you want to make sure is that you are getting the foreign target." The law will expire in six months and changes the oversight and regulation process for government monitoring.
The new law gives the attorney general and the director of national intelligence the power to approve the international surveillance, rather than the special intelligence court. The court's only role will be to review and approve the procedures used by the government in the surveillance after it has been conducted. It will not scrutinize the cases of the individuals being monitored.