"We can have security and our civil liberties.” – Rep. John Tierney (D-MA)
Since it was first disclosed to the public in late 2005, the National Security Agency’s program of warrantless surveillance has been the focus of calls for investigation by members of both political parties. Concern over this program – and over the lack of oversight by Congress and the courts of the administration’s other surveillance practices – has cast a pall of suspicion particularly over Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose faulty memory on the subject would be funny if it weren’t so troubling.
In this context, it’s even more astonishing that Congress would relent to pressure from the Bush administration to pass measures further expanding the scope of unchecked surveillance on American citizens. On Sunday, George W. Bush signed into law the Protect America Act, which will grant the National Security Agency full and unchecked surveillance of phone and email conversations occurring on U.S. telecommunication lines without any kind of warrant.
The legislation, which ACLU director Anthony D. Romero calls “profoundly intrusive,” undercuts the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 under which a secret court was set up to dispense such warrants. As we now know, after September 11th, the NSA was ignoring FISA and conducting wiretapping without the necessary warrants; but now, just as it seemed we were about to get some answers about this program, Congress has revised FISA and granted the ability to dispense warrants to National Intelligence director Mike McConnell and Attorney General Alberto A. Gonzales. The FISA court will be allowed to review the approval process for the wiretapping, but must wait 120 days after surveillance begins.
While supporters of the legislation argue that only those with a foreign terror link need worry about the content of their calls or emails, the Act does not specify how incidental interceptions of communication between Americans will be treated, seemingly allowing the Attorney General’s office to root itself squarely in the private lives of the American people.
Below is some commentary on the bill, as well as a call to action from the ACLU.