Strong surveillance will persist in the US. The provision of the FISA surveillance law, section 702, has been renewed. It is not President Trump’s finest hour, as on the campaign trail he stumped against renewing FISA. For someone who has made an issue out of fulfilling campaign promises, or at least trying to, it would have been an easy thing for him to outright veto the legislation when it came to his desk.
But the vote margin was veto-proof, having achieved the super-majority of 65 votes. This means that the world will have to live with the ramifications for at least another six years. President Trump, through his spokesperson, did at least express misgivings about the FISA program in general - for what that’s worth now!
Tuesday’s vote was a major blow to privacy activists, who saw the sunset of NSA authority as a strategic opportunity for Congress to rein in NSA surveillance and restrict how the government can use the information it collects.
The program allows for US spy agencies to collect information on foreigners outside the country was reauthorized by both chambers of Congress this month, with surprising bi-partisan support. The vote was passed 65-34, meaning that a significant number of Democrats joined in with continuing former President Obama’s penchant for government spying on individuals. The bill had previously passed the House 256-164 last week, with support from many Democrats.
To review, Section 702 of FISA allows intelligence officials to oversee communications of foreigners outside the US without a warrant. It’s an amendment added to FISA in 2008. Section 702 cannot be used to target Americans or people in the US. However, the FISA Amendments Act allows the government to collect the data from American firms, such as Google or Microsoft.
Critics contend that its powers are so sweeping that Americans may be vacuumed up in the process of snooping on foreigners. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) said as much in the aftermath of the bill’s passage. It’s supposed “to spy on foreigners on foreign lands,” he said, “but millions of Americans are accidentally or incidentally collected in this database, and we don’t want people just willy-nilly looking into this database without a warrant.”
Privacy groups are obviously disappointed that President Trump signed the bill into law, since only a few days earlier he tweeted (what else?) his distaste for the law’s language, and had famously railed against FISA surveillance of him and his campaign. "Once the FISA reauthorization bill goes to President Trump, he should veto it. No federal agency should have the power to unconstitutionally spy on Americans," said Laila Abdelaziz, a campaigner with Fight for the Future. But, in the end, her's and others’ pleas went for naught.
Politicians, pundits and officials weighed in after passage. Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the passage, saying the bill contains "tools to continue to keep the American people safe." As always, the prickly proposition in the long-standing argument of national security versus privacy was put to the test - and privacy lost. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters last week at the White House that:
“The president doesn’t feel that we should have to choose between protecting American citizens and protecting their civil liberties.”
Thus it appears that regardless of who occupies the White House, when it comes to protecting citizens’ privacy rights, it will always be trumped (pardon the pun) by security concerns. This is not an encouraging sign, but one must assume it reflects the feelings of a majority of voters. You can be sure that a politician will vote for his or her self-interest and self-preservation rather than conscience.
Views are writer's own.