Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

Obama Signs FISA Warrantless Wiretapping Extension

(Photo: Peter Souza)

(Photo: Peter Souza)

President Barack Obama has signed a bill extending the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, a law allowing for the warrantless wiretapping of phone and electronic communications, through the end of 2017.

FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the NSA and other US intelligence agencies to wiretap communications in which at least one of the parties involved is a foreigner, without first obtaining a warrant.

As he did last year with the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes the indefinite military detention of Americans without charge or trial, President Obama signed the FISA extension quietly over the New Year’s weekend while few were paying attention.

In 2008, then-Senator Obama vowed to reject warrantless wiretapping and oppose the FISA Amendments Act, which in addition to allowing warrantless wiretapping also granted retroactive immunity to Bush administration officials and telecom corporations which illegally tapped communications in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. But Obama flip-flopped on the issue, voting for the amendment just months before being elected president and then embracing warrantless wiretapping, which many critics claim is a violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition of warrantless search and seizure.

Critics also assert that although FISA explicitly only allows for the monitoring of foreigners’ communications, it is inevitable that Americans, who often communicate with those being tapped, will be illegally surveilled.

The House of Representatives passed the extension by a vote of 301-118, with 10 abstentions, in September. On Thursday, the Senate approved the bill by a vote of 73-23, with 4 abstentions.

FISA dates to 1978 when the Carter administration enacted the law in the wake of the illegal wiretapping abuses of the Nixon presidency.

Proponents of the measure claim it’s a valuable tool in the fight against global terrorism. Critics assert that it violates citizens’ constitutional rights.

“It’s a tragic irony that FISA, once passed to protect Americans from warrantless government surveillance, has mutated into its polar opposite due to the FISA Amendments Act,” Michelle Richardson of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a statement. “The Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping, once considered a radical threat to the Fourth Amendment, has become institutionalized for another five years.”

To read the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012, click here.

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