ACLU Challenges Expanded FISA Powers

ACLU Challenges Expanded FISA Powers

President George Bush signed into law July 10 the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, a bill expanding legal authority for wiretaps by spy agencies that has been hotly debated since the February expiration of the Protect America Act. Within hours of the bill’s signing, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in the U.S. Southern District Court of New York challenging its constitutionality on First and Fourth Amendment grounds.

H.R. 6304 rewrites the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in a way that expands the executive branch’s spying powers without doing enough to protect the privacy of innocent people whose communications are being monitored,” stated Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s Washington Office July 9, after the Senate passed the bill 69–28. The House approved the legislation 293–129 three weeks earlier.

The amended FISA “could affect any library user who uses the internet in the library to communicate with foreign friends, family members living in other countries, foreign companies—any international communications,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy executive director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “Similarly, any librarian who contacts colleagues overseas or conducts business with foreign publishers could have their international communications monitored under the new FISA,” she told American Libraries.

Caldwell-Stone explained that the FISA Amendments Act alters the requirement for obtaining a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to conduct wiretapping. The amended law eliminates the need for any specificity in an eavesdropping request, so FISC judges would no longer know whose communications they were allowing to be intercepted. For example, she said, federal agents could obtain an order that “could simply collect e-mails that pass through AT&T servers in San Francisco going to Asia in bulk under a warrant issued under the FISA rules, and then peruse them at their leisure.”

The legislation also grants retroactive immunity to telecommunications firms that allegedly shared with the federal government all telephone and internet communications routed through their networks since 2001, as some 40 civil lawsuits contend.

Plaintiffs in the ACLU’s Amnesty v. McConnell suit include international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, PEN American Center, and the International Criminal Defence Attorneys Association, as well as the political journal The Nation and its contributing journalists Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges. The ACLU also filed a motion asking that it be apprised of any consideration of its lawsuit by the secret FISA court and that the court’s decisions be made public “with only those redactions necessary to protect information that is properly classified.”

Posted on July 16, 2008. Discuss.