Obama officials demand full, reform-free renewal of the once-controversial power to eavesdrop without warrants

President Barack Obama waves upon his arrival at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Wednesday, May 23, 2012. (Credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In 2006, The New York Times‘ James Risen and Eric Lichtblau won the Pulitzer Prize for their December, 2005 article revealing that the Bush administration was eavesdropping on the electronic communications of Americans without the warrants required by the FISA law (headline: “Officials Say U.S. Wiretaps Exceeded Law”). Even though multiple federal judges eventually ruled the program illegal, that scandal generated no accountability of any kind for two reasons: (1) federal courts ultimately accepted the arguments of the Bush and Obama DOJs that the legality of Bush’s domestic spying program should not be judicially reviewed; and (2) the Democratic-led Congress, in 2008, enacted the Bush-designed FISA Amendments Act, which not only retroactively immunized the nation’s telecom giants for their illegal participation in that spying program and thus terminated pending lawsuits, but worse, also legalized the vast bulk of the Bush spying program by vesting vast new powers in the U.S. Government to eavesdrop without warrants (in his memoir, President Bush gleefully recounted that the 2008 eavesdropping bill supported by the Democrats gave him more than he ever expected).

It was then-Sen. Obama’s vote in favor of the FISA Amendments Act that caused the first serious Election Year rift between him and his own supporters. Obama’s vote in favor of the bill was so controversial for two independent reasons: (1) when he was seeking the Democratic nomination only a few months earlier and needed the support of the progressive base, Obama unequivocally vowed to filibuster “any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies,” only to turn around once he had secured the nomination and not only vote against a filibuster of that bill but then vote in favor of the bill itself; and (2) the bill itself legalized vast new powers of warrantless eavesdropping: powers which the Democratic Party (and Obama) had spent years denouncing (as Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin put it at the time: “Through the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, Congress has legitimated many of the same things people are now complaining about”). When Obama announced his reversal, his defenders insisted he was only doing it so that he could win the election and then use his power as President to stop warrantless eavesdropping abuses, while Obama himself claimed he voted for the FISA bill “with the firm intention — once I’m sworn in as President — to have my Attorney General conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future.”

The only positive aspect of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 was that Congress imposed a four-year sunset provision on the new warrantless eavesdropping powers it authorized. That sunset provision is set to expire and — surprise, surprise — the Obama administration, just like it did for the Patriot Act, is demanding its full-scale renewal without a single change or reform:

A key Senate panel voted Tuesday to extend a contested 2008 provision of foreign intelligence surveillance law that is set to expire at year’s end.

The vote is the first step toward what the Obama administration hopes will be a speedy renewal of an expanded authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor the U.S. e-mails and phone calls of overseas targets in an effort to prevent international terrorist attacks on the country.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. called the move by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence “important” to the effort to ensure that authorities can identify terrorist operatives and thwart plots. Extending the provision is the intelligence community’s top legislative priority this year.

In February, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote a joint letter to Congressional leaders demanding “speedy . . . reauthorization of these authorities in their current form” — “without amendment.” The ACLU’s Michelle Richardson yesterday wrote:

Remember the George W. Bush warrantless wiretapping program? The one that was so illegal that Congress had to pass a special law to ensure that no one was prosecuted for it or sued by their customers for facilitating it? And was found by independent reviewers to be pretty pointless anyway? And was then brilliantly codified and written into stone by Congress? And which almost immediately went off the rails, being used to collect all sorts of stuff it wasn’t supposed to? It’s back!

The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA) rewrote our surveillance laws, which had generally required a warrant or court order for surveillance of people in the US. Under the FAA, the government can get a year-long programmatic court order for general bulk collection of Americans’ international communications without specifying who will be tapped.  It is up to the administration to decide that on its own after the fact, without any judicial review. . . .  Once the National Security Agency sucks up these phone calls, texts, emails and Internet records, it can use them pursuant to secret rules that they swear protect our privacy.

That it is now the Obama administration serving as chief crusaders for warrantless eavesdropping powers — once the symbol of Bush radicalism — is telling enough. But there are numerous key facts that make the administration’s demands for reform-free renewal all the more remarkable:

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Tags: FISA, FISA Amendments Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Obama administration, Wiretaps, eavesdropping, warrantless wiretapping

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