As Senate votes on warrantless wiretapping, opponents offer fixes

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Senators offer amendments to safeguard privacy, improve transparency.

by Timothy B. Lee

With little fanfare, the United States Senate is poised to re-authorize the FISA Amendments Act, the controversial legislation that gives the federal government broad powers to intercept Americans’ international communications without a warrant. The House of Representatives approved a five-year extension in September, but without Senate support, some government surveillance powers will expire at the end of the year.

The legislation originally passed in 2008. As we reported at the time, it created a new system of “authorizations” that allows senior government officials to sign off on international wiretapping schemes. The government must submit a description of its spying plans to a judge—but the government does not need to “identify the specific facilities, places, premises, or property” at which the eavesdropping will occur, as it would need to in the case of a search warrant. That could allow the government to engage in dragnet surveillance without meaningful judicial oversight.

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The government has been tight-lipped about whether it is actually engaging in such surveillance. Since last year, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has been pressing federal officials for details about how many Americans have been the target of surveillance under FISA authorizations. The government has refused to give even a ballpark figure, meaning we don’t know if the government has spied on dozens of Americans, or millions of them. READ MORE

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