WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate has quietly voted to give intelligence agencies the permission to conduct warrantless surveillance on U.S. citizens for an additional five years.
Senators took a vote on Tuesday of this week to end debate on a bill, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), that allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect texts and emails of foreigners abroad without a warrant — even if those texts and emails are communicating with, and thereby exposing, American citizens in the U.S.
The measure came to a vote on Thursday as a result of the fact that 18 Democrats went along with a Republican motion to end debate and prevent a filibuster from blocking its passage. It then passed with 65 senators voting in favor and — the House having previously passed it with the support of 85 Democratic representatives — heads to President Donald Trump for his certain signature. In effect, this extension of surveillance was one of the few major pieces of legislation in the Trump era to enjoy any semblance of bipartisan support — both parties seem to be on board with the domestic surveillance game.
Civil liberties groups, as well as media, have decried the expansion of warrantless surveillance, saying that it violates Americans’ rights to privacy; creates an end-run around the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; enables the information gathered to be stored as a repository to “fish” thru at a later date in search of criminal actions; and may be subject to politically motivated abuse.
The official whose spying power was most increased and freed from constraints – thanks to the bill supported by 85 Democrats and 245 Republicans – was Jeff Sessions. Compare the rhetoric about Sessions from these 85 Dems over the last year to what they just voted to give him. https://t.co/D79fbarloP
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 18, 2018
— emptywheel (@emptywheel) January 18, 2018
A Los Angeles Times editorial last summer stated:
Under Section 702, the government does not need to obtain individual warrants authorizing the surveillance of each person who is targeted. Instead, at the request of the attorney general and the director of national intelligence, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court certifies categories of foreigners who may be appropriately targeted. The court also approves procedures for “minimizing” (protecting the privacy) of information about U.S. citizens collected as part of the surveillance.”
It should be noted that the hullabaloo is over “warrantless” spying — because the myth has of course been promulgated that America doesn’t spy on its own citizens without due process.
A long history of domestic spying in the U.S.
The “warrantless” spying of the current NSA is directly attributable to the secret – and illegal – spying by the Bush administration in the aftermath of September 11. The public was not made aware of its existence until four years later. But prior to that, we know that phone wiretaps and other forms of surveillance were used on American citizens through the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). Communists, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panther Party were favored targets of that program. While The New York Times published the existence of Bush’s spying program, it took a burglary for the media to expose the FBI’s program under President Richard Nixon.
President Ronald Reagan – not his administration but he himself personally – spied on fellow actors in Hollywood during his time as a thespian. This was just prior to and coincided with what historians now call the McCarthy Era, which featured “witch-hunt” congressional hearings on the political activities of U.S. citizens.
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During the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, spying on those who opposed the United States’ involvement in World War II was fairly routine. As Justus Doenecke recounted in the Daily Beast:
Although the Communications Act of 1934 outlawed federal wiretapping, the bureau tapped the phones of Charles A. Lindbergh, the most charismatic leader among FDR’s foreign policy critics … The FBI also engaged in illegal wiretapping of the New York chapter of the America First Committee (AFC), the nation’s leading anti-interventionist organization.”
Not even Albert Einstein, the celebrated physicist who became a U.S. citizen in 1940, was immune to spying from the U.S. government.
Edward Snowden’s bombshell was not that he leaked documentation of the NSA’s spying; it was that he leaked information that revealed how widespread and deep that spying was. That should not have been as big of a surprise as it was. David P. Hadley wrote in Origins, Ohio State University’s history department journal at the time:
The potential of the National Security Agency (NSA) to violate the privacy of American citizens is unmatched by any other intelligence agency, especially as telecommunications technology advances. Perhaps surprisingly, that warning was not issued in the wake of the cache of documents leaked by former civilian security contractor Edward Snowden to the Washington Post and the Guardian this past summer. It was made instead in the 1970s by the Senate’s Church Committee when it held hearings on the activities of the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA.”
Spying by the U.S. government on its own citizens has existed for at least the last one hundred years. What happened this week in the U.S. Senate is not an aberration; it is the continuation of a long-standing tradition.
Top Photo | Employees work inside of the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center during a media tour in Arlington, Virginia June 26, 2014. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Thandisizwe Chimurenga is an award-winning, freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, California. She is a staff writer for MintPress News, Daily Kos and co-hosts a weekly, morning drive-time public affairs/news show on the Pacifica Radio network. She is the author of No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant and Reparations … Not Yet: A Case for Reparations and Why We Must Wait; she is also a contributor to several social justice anthologies.