Feds Seek Broader Surveillance PowerSenate OKs lesser requirements for scrutiny, wiretap.
Elsa Wenzel, Medill News Service
WASHINGTON-- Government investigators will get even quicker and easier authorization to search phone and computer records of suspected terrorists, under a bill approved overwhelmingly by the Senate this week.
Civil liberties and privacy advocates say the measure serves government secrecy at the expense of people's due process rights. It proposes moving some wiretap requests that normally go to criminal courts into the hands of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It also lets law enforcement target suspected "lone wolf" terrorists who aren't clearly connected to foreign governments or political groups.
The Senate passed the measure Thursday night by a 98-4 vote.
"It's the worst of both worlds. We not only have intrusive government, we have secret government," says Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's part and parcel of the continued expansion of the use of intelligence laws to spy on Americans."
The bill amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The act created the secret court, which issues warrants to conduct searches on people tied to foreign governments. The court itself has expanded federal law enforcement agencies' surveillance authority.
"If you're not an American citizen, you don't have a green card, and we have reason to believe you're plotting terrorism, the FBI will be watching you, " said New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, who introduced the bill with Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican.
Senate approval "is a major step forward" against terrorists who hide their connections to foreign governments or organizations," Kyl says. The legislation now goes to the House for consideration.
But more lenient rules for surveillance can be abused, say opponents. It could allow spying on Americans believed to be connected to radical political groups, according to Lee Tien, senior counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"Because of the way the Internet is used, there are so many more people that could get caught up in a web" than with the telephone wiretaps used in the past, Tien says.
The closed-door court last year approved all 1228 warrants the Justice Department sought, and the DOJ requested 30 percent more than in 2001. The court does not release the identities of those it investigates.
"People should be scared by the fact that we don't know," Tien says. "One of the issues with government surveillance is you don't know if they don't tell you."
Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978 with the understanding "to limit this power to what was truly foreign counterintelligence," Tien says.
"If you're not connected to a foreign organization or government, the FBI should be using the criminal standards, not these special intelligence standards which are easier for the FBI to meet," says Lara Flint, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology.
The FBI says the Senate bill fixes a technicality that prevented it from searching the laptop of the suspected "20th hijacker" Zacharias Moussaoui before the September 11, 2001 attacks, because the agency could not link him to a foreign power.
Flint says that is false. The government could have used FISA to secretly spy on Moussaoui because of his connection to Chechen rebels, she says.
Known as both the "Moussaoui Fix" and the lone-wolf bill, the measure, if it becomes law, would expire in 2006 along with parts of the Patriot Act of 2001.
The Patriot Act expanded foreign intelligence gathering to include e-mail and Web sites in addition to phone records.
Members of Congress have criticized the FBI and Justice Department for not sharing information about government surveillance activities. The Senate added one oversight requirement to the bill.
The Justice Department must report to Congress annually about the types of FISA wiretaps issued. That change to the measure was introduced by Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
Also, some civil liberties groups have challenged the broader surveillance policies in the courts and in requests for details through the Freedom of Information Act.