House Struggle Over Abusive Government Spying Erupts In Open Committee
At the bottom of this article is a list of the members of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. It’s a fairly large congressional subcommittee, and today, it had a very important hearing: To review the routine practice espionage against American citizens in the United States by the federal government under the FISA Amendments Act.
Yet, although there were many audience members, the seats arranged for members of the subcommittee were mostly empty. Many members of the subcommittee simply didn’t bother to show up.
Members of the subcommittee who were present to listen heard disturbing testimony from Marc Rotenberg from the Electronic Privacy Information Center and from Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Rotenberg explained to the committee the inadequacy of oversight and transparency in the administration of the FISA Amendments Act, stating that “The Attorney General’s annual FISA report provides virtually no meaningful information about the use of FISA authority… There is no information about cost, purposes, effectiveness, or even the number of non-incriminating communications of US persons that are collected by the government.” Rotenberg also noted the “broad chilling effect” on free speech that has taken place in the United States, given the lack of reasonable confidence among Americans that their telephone calls and emails are not being listened to by government spies.
Jaffer pointed out that the FISA court is given extremely little power to put reasonable control on government surveillance, relying on mere government assertions about the people targeted for spying. The FISA court has no right to demand evidence regarding the identities of the targets of spying, much less the identity of people whose private information is incidentally collected and searched. Entire categories of communications, rather than particular places or people, are opened up for electronic surveillance under the law. “The FISA Amendments Act is unconstitutional. The Act violates the Fourth Amendment by authorizing warrantless and unreasonable searches. It violates the First Amendment because it sweeps within its ambit constitutionally protected speech that the government has no legitimate interest in acquiring and because it fails to provide adequate procedural safeguards.”
Unconstitutional search and seizure concerns are only a part of the concerns people have about the extraordinary powers created by the FISA Americans Act. The law enables the federal government to collect, analyze, and share information expressed in private communications about Americans’ political opinions on matters such as foreign policy. “Americans’ communications about things like foreign affairs can be disseminated, analyzed, retained forever… This kind of surveillance has a chilling effect on activity that’s not just protected but is necessary to our democracy,” Jaffer pointed out.
Additionally, the subcommittee was confronted with evidence that the government has “repeatedly violated” even the fast and loose terms of the FISA Amendments Act. The creation of extraordinary, unconstitutional electronic spying powers appears to have encouraged federal “intelligence” agencies to go even farther, violating Americans’ rights and breaking the law without fear of punishment.
Most members of the subcommittee who heard the testimony presented today expressed concern about the FISA Amendments Act. John Conyers, who as a member of the full House Judiciary Committee was allowed to sit in on the hearing, protested the unwillingness of the Executive Branch to provide information to Congress about the use of the FISA Amendments Act, commenting, “We’ve been told we can’t even tell how many people subjected to this process are located in the United States… It’s this kind of vagueness that creates among those of us in Congress a suspicion that is negative rather than a suspicion that is positive.” Representative Robert Scott expressed concern about about the “massive amounts of information being collected,” and stated his plain opinion that “we should not be surveilling Americans by this low standard.
But then, few members of the subcommittee were present for the hearing. Only the following representatives bothered to speak or ask questions of the legal experts who testified in the hearing: Robert Scott, John Conyers, Dan Lungren, Judy Chu, Jared Polis, Hank Johnson, Steve Cohen, Trey Gowdy and James Sensenbrenner.
The other members of the subcommittee didn’t care enough about protecting the liberty of their constituents to participate.
Republicans on the subcommittee are: James Sensenbrenner (Chairman), Louie Gohmert (Vice-Chairman), Bob Goodlatte, Daniel Lungren, Randy Forbes, Ted Poe, Jason Chaffetz, Tim Griffin, Thomas Marino, Trey Gowdy, Sandy Adams, and Mark Amodei.