It’s not an official piece of legislation registered with the Library of Congress yet, but this week, in a secret meeting, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved the advancement of a bill that, if signed into law, will extend the FISA Amendments Act by five years. The legislation will be named The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 Extension Act of 2012.
The June 2017 expiration date set by this new legislation extends the FISA Amendments Act beyond the next four-year presidential term. So, even for those Democrats who presume that Barack Obama would never abuse the FISA Amendments Act surveillance powers, important questions remain: Who can guess the name of the politician who will be President in 2017, and who can anticipate whether that politician can be trusted with the extreme surveillance power made possible under the FISA Amendments Act?
The FISA Amendments Act has resulted in the creation of a massive electronics surveillance network that is known to target Americans within the United States. Cell phone calls, Internet traffic, emails and other communications are intercepted, searched, and stored. Nobody, not even members of congressional oversight committees, know the limits of the system. The FISA Amendments Act operates outside the limits set by the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights, allowing searches of Americans’ personal communications without search warrants, and without targeting of the search against particular persons and places.
Under the FISA Amendments Act, it’s fair for Americans to assume that their own government is eavesdropping on a significant portion of their private communications. That reasonable presumption alone is a corrosive force in our democracy, because it leads to self-censorship in word and in thought, just of the sort that George Orwell described in his novel 1984.
The FISA Amendments Act was the brainchild of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but now, President Barack Obama is supporting the 5-year extension of the spying law. So are many Democrats in the House and Senate. Any grassroots effort to stop the renewal of the FISA Amendments Act will therefore face a steep uphill battle.