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Spy law menaces U.S. liberty

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Signed into law Aug. 5, the amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) expands the power of the federal government in significant ways. Whereas before the government needed a search warrant to eavesdrop on Americans' communications with foreigners, a court warrant is now unnecessary, allowing the government carte blanche to eavesdrop on any American communicating with someone overseas, even if the other party is also an American citizen.

Though the White House has stressed that the objective of the program is to eavesdrop on foreign suspects overseas, the way the law is worded, an American in Paris talking to an American in Indiana can have his phone calls, faxes and e-mail monitored at the government's say-so. There is no requirement that the person whose calls or e-mails are being monitored be a suspected spy, terrorist or criminal.

Rushed into law before Congress recessed in August on the grounds that it plugs a gaping hole in our national security system, the new legislation does several things. It provides a legal framework for the surveillance that has been conducted without a warrant by the National Security Agency outside of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Such surveillance was recently declared illegal. The amendment also compels telecommunications companies to cooperate with the government wiretaps and immunizes them from lawsuits for doing so. It invests the attorney general and the director of national intelligence with the authority to decide whose communications will be wiretapped.

What the bill does not do is establish criteria by which targets will be selected. The legislation says that the special intelligence court will review and approve procedures used by the government, but the FISA court is not authorized to review individual cases. The lack of judicial oversight, coupled with the broad expansion of the government's ability to monitor citizens' international communications, raises serious concerns.

"This bill would grant the attorney general the ability to wiretap anybody, any place, any time without court review, without any checks and balances," said Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren during the debate preceding the vote. Lofgren said the bill effectively "eviscerates the Fourth Amendment," which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

Privacy advocates and defenders of civil liberties echo her concerns.

It's worth recalling that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was created in 1978 to deal with abuses arising out of President Nixon's spying on American citizens.

Given that history, the wiretapping of American citizens that went on during the 1960s and the Bush administration's frequent disregard for ethical and legal norms during the last seven years, no one can expect that this license to eavesdrop on Americans' international communications will not be misused.

Democrats in the House and Senate who caved in to political pressure exerted by the White House should think again when the warrantless wiretapping bill comes up for reauthorization in six months. Protection from terrorists that erodes Americans' liberty is not protection worthy of the name. Americans should speak out vigorously against actions, legal or illegal, that deprive them of the fundamental freedoms on which our system of government is based.

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