Ending a year-long legislative debate, President George W. Bush signed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 into law on Thursday, giving U.S. intelligence officials more power to wiretap phone calls and eavesdrop on Internet communications between foreign terrorist suspects and U.S. citizens.
A lawsuit asserting the unconstitutionality of the legislation waited in the wings.
The law, which updates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, allows intelligence agencies to seek approval for broad wiretap orders lasting a year, gives more time for officials to seek -- and for judges to approve -- a wiretap order in an emergency, and provides that the legislation is the exclusive means through which domestic surveillance can be performed. The law grants legal immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the Bush Administration in the past.
"The legislation I am signing today will ensure that our intelligence community professionals have the tools they need to protect our country in the years to come," President Bush said during the signing ceremony, according to a transcript. "The DNI (Director of National Intelligence) and the Attorney General both report that, once enacted, this law will provide vital assistance to our intelligence officials in their work to thwart terrorist plots."
A diverse group of U.S. citizens, however, have debated that the legislation exposes U.S. citizens to the risk of unreasonable searches as defined by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union, reporters from The Nation, various international human rights groups, and defense attorneys filed suit in U.S. District Court, arguing that the law is unconstitutional.
"Spying on Americans without warrants or judicial approval is an abuse of government power - and that's exactly what this law allows," ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. "The ACLU will not sit by and let this evisceration of the Fourth Amendment go unchallenged."
In 2006, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against the National Security Agency (NSA), agreeing with the U.S. government that allowing the case to proceed would threaten national security. The Bush Administration has used its state-secrets privilege to scuttle every lawsuit brought against it, save one.
Revising the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has preoccupied Congressional leaders and the Bush Administration ever since the New York Times revealed that the NSA had broadly eavesdropped on telephone and Internet communications. The agency had allegedly installed special rooms equipped with wiretapping hardware in important communications hubs with the blessing of major telecommunications firms. A whistleblower has claimed that AT&T had one such room, while a security consultant recently stated that a major cellular telecommunications company allowed a third party to directly connect, via a line known as the "Quantico circuit," into their systems.
The ACLU's lawsuit argues that the law violates both the freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable searches guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU has requested that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ensure that the proceedings determining the constitutionality of the law be opened to the public as much as possible, according to the group's release.
If you have tips or insights on this topic, please contact SecurityFocus.
Posted by: Robert Lemos