December 27, 2012 11:32AM

The Senate’s Rushed Debate on NSA Spying Powers

As I write, the Senate is gathering in an unusual special session to debate the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act, which I discussed in a recent Cato podcast. Unfortunately, as Sen. Ron Wyden pointed out in opening the discussion, this sparsely‐​attended holiday session is likely to be the only full floor debate on sweeping surveillance legislation that has been in force for four years already (during which we know it has already been used unconstitutionally), and is all but certain to be renewed for another five. That’s especially disturbing given that, when the House debated the law back in September, its strongest supporters revealed themselves to be profoundly confused about what the law does, and just how much warrantless spying on the communications of American citizens it permits, despite being nominally restricted to “foreign targets.”

Our friends at the Heritage Foundation have a post up sounding the Klaxon to warn of dire consequences if the Senate fails to renew the law without substantial changes. Hearteningly, even Heritage seems to be comfortable with proposed reforms requiring the secret FISA Court to publish declassified versions of substantial interpretations of the statute, so we are not effectively living under a body of secret law. But their vague claim that some amendments would “substantially change the nature of the legislation” doesn’t really hold up.

Here’s a rundown of amendments that will be proposed. With the exception of a genuinely radical one offered by Sen. Rand Paul—proposing that the Fourth Amendment applies to our digital records and communications even when they’re stored by an Internet company—they’re all very mild, utterly common sense tweaks. One offered by Sen. Pat Leahy would extend the FAA for three years rather than five, in hopes that we might actually have a more substantial debate about this incredible spying power soon. Sen. Jeff Merkley is offering the one mentioned above, ensuring that we’re not living under secret law. 

Finally, Sen. Wyden has two important amendments. One would require the NSA to produce a rough estimate of how many Americans’ communications are intercepted under the sweeping “vacuum cleaner” style programs authorized by FAA, which they have thus far refused to do, probably in part because the number would be distressingly high. A second would prohibit “backdoor searches” targeting Americans. The idea here is that precisely because warrantless FISA surveillance is so sweeping, and large numbers of Americans’ communications are likely to end up in the NSA database even if foreign groups are in theory the “target” of surveillance—as we know has already happened on a large scale—it becomes possible to effectively “target” Americans simply by entering their names or other identifying information in searches of the database. That’s obviously a way of circumventing the law’s ban on “reverse targeting” that is really meant to spy on Americans under authority nominally aimed at foreigners. Wyden’s amendment would simply require an individualized FISA warrant when agents want to search their vast communications database for a particular American’s information. The NSA has objected to the term “backdoor searches” and the characterization of this process as a “loophole” in the law—but they certainly haven’t denied that the law as written allows them to do this, and have resisted this effort to prohibit it. Yet if, as supporters insist, this is really a law aimed at foreigners rather than Americans, surely such a requirement should be a no‐​brainer.

Amendments aside, it’s worth noting that nothing dire would happen if the law expired for a while. Programmatic surveillance authorizations under the law—covering entire “categories” of surveillance targets rather than particular people—last for a year, and would continue unmolested if the law lapsed. As we now know, claims made in 2008 about immediate problems arising from the expiration of the predecessor to the FAA were highly misleading, and one suspects deliberately so. We also know that the hyperbolic claims about the value of the initial, extralegal warrantless wiretap program didn’t hold up to scrutiny once the Inspectors General got around to auditing the program. There’s no realistic chance the Senate is going to let this legislation expire but, Mayan calendar notwithstanding, the world would not end if it did.

Given that this law is going to be renewed, ask yourself: Aren’t the checks discussed above just common sense? Shouldn’t we know what the laws we live under actually mean, as interpreted by the courts? Shouldn’t we know approximately how many Americans are being secretly spied on by the government? If a surveillance program is, in principle, supposed to be exclusively aimed at foreigners, then shouldn’t a warrant be required before that program can be explicitly and deliberately used to read the e‐​mails of Americans? It is hard to imagine how anyone could oppose any of these principles, whether or not they approve of the FISA Amendments Act as a whole. If our friends at Heritage—or more to the point, members of the Senate—do oppose any of these, we should at least ask for a convincing explanation of why, not a vague suggestion that we’re all in danger unless we shut up and embrace the status quo.