Legislation Seeks to Limit Warrantless Wiretapping Powers

Photo: Wikipedia

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) introduced legislation Thursday that would provide limited privacy protections to the warrantless wiretapping program secretly adopted under the George W. Bush administration.

The proposal would amend what was initially called the Terrorist Surveillance Program the Bush administration secretly adopted in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks. Congress subsequently authorized much of the program, which allows the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans’ communications without normal court warrants if the government believes the person on the receiving end of an e-mail or phone call is overseas. The communications may be intercepted “to acquire foreign intelligence information.”

The program, now congressionally authorized under the FISA Amendments Act, expires at year’s end. Committees in the House and Senate (.pdf) have agreed to reauthorize it. The only sticking point is how long the authorization lasts.

But Merkley hopes to derail that legislation.

“Keeping Americans safe versus protecting American’s privacy is a false choice. We have a moral and Constitutional duty to do both,” Merkley said in a statement. “We can ensure our government has the tools to spy on our enemies without giving it a license to intrude into the private lives of American citizens. ”

Among other things, Merkley’s proposal (.pdf) seeks to amend a section that generally requires the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court to rubber-stamp terror-related electronic surveillance requests that ensnare Americans’ communications. The government does not have to identify the target or facility to be monitored. It can begin surveillance a week before making the request, and the surveillance can continue during the appeals process if, in a rare case, the secret FISA court rejects the surveillance application. The court’s rulings are not public.

Under Merkley’s “Protect America’s Privacy Act,” if the secret FISA court rejects a spying request, the government “must immediately stop the information acquisition and that any information collected from Americans may not be used in legal proceeding.” What’s more, if data is collected on Americans, it cannot be accessed without a standard, probable-cause warrant.