Senators Seek Hearings Before Amending FISA

TChris wrote earlier today about why Congress should reject gutting FISA. A bipartisan group of senators has sent a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) urging him to hold additional hearings before taking action on legislation regarding the NSA warrantless electronic surveillance program. In their letter, Senators Craig, Durbin, Sununu, Feingold, Murkowski, and Salazar express serious concerns about Specter's bill to authorize the NSA program:

We believe that additional information is necessary before the Senate can responsibly consider legislation that would dramatically alter FISA and significantly expand the surveillance authority of the executive branch. ... We are concerned by provisions in the newest version of your bill that suggest that the executive branch could conduct wiretaps and physical searches without the court orders currently required by FISA, and that would amend FISA to authorize "program warrants." In addition, we believe that Congress needs far more information about the newest section of your bill, which contains numerous complex amendments to FISA that appear to rewrite that law significantly.

You can read the entire letter here. I also recommend the ACLU's statement today opposing amending FISA.

Today the American Civil Liberties Union urged the House of Representatives to reject attempts to erode Fourth Amendment protections under the guise of "updating" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), as the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security met to consider several proposals that would condone President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.

....The ACLU noted FISA has already undergone extensive "updating." When the Patriot Act was originally passed and then reauthorized, Congress amended FISA extensively, much to the detriment of the law's original civil liberties protections, although the requirement of warrants for wiretaps was left intact. However, despite the expanded powers at his disposal, inh 2001 President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to secretly wiretap Americans without a court order, in violation of FISA and the Fourth Amendment.

The White House has since stonewalled congressional attempts to investigate the administration's circumvention of FISA. President Bush personally blocked an investigation by the Justice Department regarding the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. Vice President Cheney personally blocked telecommunications companies from testifying before Congress. And recently, a federal court found the warrantless wiretapping program illegal and unconstitutional. Several bills have been introduced that would reward the government's illegal actions by changing the law to legitimize the programs.

One bill at issue is S. 2453.

The ACLU has raised strong objections to S. 2453, the National Security Surveillance Act. Sponsored by Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) and drafted in close consultation with the White House, the Cheney-Specter bill would make complying with FISA and the Fourth Amendment optional for the president. The bill would also vastly expand the government's ability to conduct warrantless surveillance and physical searches of Americans' homes and businesses without judicial check.

Then there's H.R. HR 5825, co-sponsored by Sensenbrenner the Menace.

That proposal would give the president unprecedented power to conduct warrantless spying and physical searches of Americans on American soil for months at a time, without any judicial check or finding that an American is conspiring with al Qaeda. The bill also authorizes the warrantless surveillance program. The ACLU noted the bill allows any act of terrorism to trigger the suspension of the court order requirements of FISA.

Why is Congress considering rewarding a President who overstepped his authority with foregiveness for his transgressions?

"Congress must not reward the president's disregard for the rule of law with legislation granting amnesty to his illegal actions," said Lisa Graves, ACLU Senior Counsel for Legislative Strategy. "FISA was enacted to ensure that no president could unilaterally decide who to secretly and indefinitely wiretap under the guise of national security. These bills would allow terrorism to be used as a pretext for undermining our basic Fourth Amendment rights. Congress should not pass the bills which give the president a blank check to violate the rights of innocent Americans."

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