The Senate plans to vote today on the U.S. Department of Justice's top legislative priority: reauthorizing key provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The House in September passed its version of the FISA Amendments Act reauthorization, one of the top tools for collecting foreign intelligence. The reauthorization faces opposition and amendments from Democrats and other senators, who have privacy concerns about when the emails and phone calls of American citizens have been collected without a warrant.
The debate is scheduled to last all day, with a vote at 5:30 p.m. The FISA program has been the subject of numerous hearings on Capitol Hill, including testimony from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and privacy advocates. The FISA program was expanded during the Bush administration in 2008 to include the interception of digital communications. The law is set to expire in 2013.
The public deserves more oversight on how the law is used, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said during debate on the Senate floor Thursday morning, echoing the concerns of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Wyden was part of a group of 13 senators who asked for information about the FISA program this year but say intelligence officials refused to provide public answers.
Wyden said that intelligence officials did acknowledge that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court that oversees the DOJ's actions, has ruled at least once that the government's warrantless wiretapping violated the Fourth Amendment.
The threat to the privacy of Americans "has been real and it is not hypothetical," Wyden said. The law should not be "an 'end run' around traditional warrant requirements and conduct backdoor searches for American's communications."
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on the Senate floor Thursday that the existing provisions are adequate to protect the privacy of Americans. They are narrowly tailored to target foreigners, prohibit targeting Americans and prohibit targeting a foreigner when the real target is an American with whom they are communicating.
"No one should think the targets are U.S. persons," Feinstein said. "Thirteen members of the intelligence committee who have voted on this do not believe this is a problem."
She also disputed claims that the program is not accountable, since it responds to a court with 11 federal judges, Senate committees and oversight in the executive branch. "I don't think there's any program with more rigorous oversight," Feinstein said.