An updated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was agreed on today by Senate and House members eager to put an almost-unprecedented partisan fight behind them.
FISA, originally enacted in 1978, provides guidelines for authorizing electronic surveillance of foreign agents operating in the United States. The law came under fire when, in 2006, the New York Times published leaks about a top-secret program being conducted by the National Security Agency at the president’s request.
Supported by a broad bipartisan base, the FISA Amendments Act, H.R. 6304, will allow the effective surveillance of terrorist communications with people in the United States while preserving Americans’ civil liberties. The bill includes five specific points to underscore privacy and civil liberties protections.
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice-Chair Kit Bond (R-Mo.) said the decision “will put the intelligence community back in business, protect American families from attack and protect our civil liberties.”
A released overview of the Act said it “ensures that the Intelligence Community has the flexibility and agility it needs to identify and respond to terrorist and other foreign threats to our security.”
The measure also relieves the burden on telecom companies by providing prospective and retroactive immunity against privacy lawsuits. Many of these companies are facing suits from civil liberties organizations due to their cooperation with intelligence officials since 9/11/01. Granting these immunities boosted the argument for the FISA Amendments Act to pass among Democrats.
HUMAN EVENTS Editor Jed Babbin wrote yesterday that the companies can “obtain civil immunity by showing a court a request for cooperation from the government that assured the company that cooperation was legal.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John “Jay” Rockefeller (D-WV) called the Act “historic” and said it was an “essential tool in the fight against terrorism.”
Senate and Congressional Republicans have pushed hard — against the resistance of House Democrats — to move forward with FISA legislation for months. But even with the strong bipartisan support, the issue may translate into a controversy in the presidential campaign. Sen. Barack Obama does not support the Act and has voted against a similar bill that passed the Senate last fall.
After the New York Times made it controversial, the so-called “warrantless eavesdropping” under FISA became a long struggle. House Democrats, including Speaker Pelosi personally, stood against the Senate bill at the behest of the trial lawyers’ lobby. The lawyers opposed the new FISA bill because it provided retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that had cooperated with NSA. The compromise legislation — though slightly weaker than last year’s Senate bill — provides a broad path to that same immunity.
Legislators refused to renew the interim “Protect America Act” and since then, wiretapping intelligence has run on a temporary — what President Bush called — “patchwork extension.” Without full intelligence surveillance capabilities, some feared the vulnerability of America’s national security but the FISA Amendments Act should restore that.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a key negotiator in reaching the new compromise said, “This bipartisan bill balances the needs of our intelligence community with Americans’ civil liberties, and provides critical new oversight and accountability requirements.”
Hoyer said it “strikes a sound balance” between what Republicans and Democrats want in maintaining national security while still protection citizen’s rights.
“It’s imperative that FISA’s exclusivity in domestic intelligence gathering be codified in law, and that’s precisely what this bill does,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who proposed similar exclusivity language in 2006.
The bill will be debated in the House today, ending months of turmoil regarding specific details to finalize that decision, which includes several layers of oversight and assures citizens that they privacy is being upheld.
After long battle, lawmakers seemed ready to end the arguing and move on to other election year issues.
“After a long, hard process of give and take, this FISA bill will prevent any repeat of warrantless surveillance undertaken by the President and will hold our government accountable for its actions, past and future, through strengthened court review and congressional oversight,” Rockefeller said.