Issue in Focus
Nov 17 2017
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was signed into law in 1978 to curtail the relatively unbridled surveillance power the executive had possessed since President Franklin Roosevelt. The intent of the act was to limit the government’s ability to spy on Americans abroad and all people at home.
Despite their good intentions, the authors of the bill included one provision that accomplished just the opposite. Section 702 of FISA has allowed the government to collect vast amounts of information from the Internet and other technological platforms, effectively undermining the law’s original intent of protecting civil liberties.
Government agencies have exploited this provision to expand their spying powers. The tech trails and geotracking used by government agencies today would have seemed like the stuff of science fiction in 1978, while PRISM would have seemed like something out of 1984.
We’ve made progress in rolling back some of these abuses—for example, by passing the USA Freedom Act in 2015—but we still have a way to go.
That is why I am pleased that the USA Liberty Act passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last week.
The USA Liberty Act would create a new framework of protections and transparency requirements to ensure that the government uses its surveillance powers without abusing citizens’ constitutional rights to privacy and due process.
This bill would define more strictly what information can and cannot be collected by the government, whether incidentally or intentionally. It would end the collection of information that is bundled incidentally with more important information about a person or topic of interest. It also would implement higher accountability thresholds for heads of government agencies responsible for protecting civil liberties, whistleblower protections for federal employees and contractors, and privacy and due process safeguards for American citizens.
Today, Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT) and I introduced a companion bill to the USA Liberty Act that includes all these protections. Our Senate bill also includes an amendment originally introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that would close a “back-door” surveillance loophole by requiring domestic agencies such as the FBI to obtain a warrant before accessing any information about American citizens collected under Section 702.
Fifty years after FISA’s passage, we are still reconciling the need for public safety with constitutionally protected rights to privacy and due process. The USA Liberty Act would send a clear bipartisan message that our government must protect Americans’ safety and constitutional rights—not one or the other.