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Director Of National Intelligence Admits FISA Amendments Act Has Been Abused

Tech Dirt files this story under Congress-Will-Ignore-It-Anyway. Wired has covered it too, but if anyone is to be credited with breaking the story, it should be Senator Ron Wyden.

surveillance of smartphonesWyden has been pestering the Executive Branch for details about how the remarkable spy powers of the FISA Amendments Act are being used, focusing his efforts especially on the ways that the FISA Amendments Act is being used against Americans and other constitutionally-protected people within U.S. borders. For a long time, the Executive Branch simply refused to provide the information he requested, proving that the Congress really doesn’t have effective oversight over the surveillance scheme of the FISA Amendments Act.

Now, finally, the Executive Branch has given Senator Wyden a tiny nugget of insight into what’s being done with the spying powers of the FISA Amendments Act. This nugget doesn’t tell us much, but what it tells us doesn’t look good.

In a letter sent to Senator Wyden by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the spy chief admits that the FISA court, a secretive body with no public transparency, whose members are not known and whose very legal theories are classified top secret, has ruled some of the spying attempted by the Executive Branch to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

How many times has this happened? The Director of National Intelligence refused to get specific, merely stating that unconstitutional surveillance plans have been identified at least once… in other words… more than zero times. It could be a million times. It could be twenty. We just don’t know.

This refusal by the Executive Branch to be honest with the American people, even just about the number of times that our own government has conducted unreasonable searches and seizures against us, is especially disturbing given the scope of the FISA Amendments Act. The legislation retroactively legalized an illegal and unconstitutional electronic surveillance dragnet that grabs data from private cell phone calls, email, gps devices, financial transactions, and other online activity – all without a search warrant.

The Executive Branch has a history of lying to the public about the extent of spying going on in relation to the FISA Amendments Act. For a long while, the White House denied that the surveillance program existed at all. So, when the Director of National Intelligence finally admits that there’s some surveillance going on under the FISA Amendments Act that’s unconstitutional, but refuses to specify how much of it is taking place, we have good reason to fear the worst.

That fear, in itself, is a serious threat to our democracy. The fact that many people realize that they have good reason to suspect that, at any moment, U.S. government spy agencies may be looking at their online activity, creates an impulse of self-censorship. Americans are limiting their political speech online because of the justifiable fear that their words are being searched and stored by their government.

Right now, there are two bills – one in the House and one in the Senate – that would extend the extraordinary electronic spying powers of the FISA Amendments Act for 5 more years. These bills contain no reforms at all.

Take Action Today – Call the congressional switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask to be connected to your U.S. senators and your U.S. representative. Leave a message at their offices asking for a vote against any legislation that reauthorizes the FISA Amendments Act.

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