Inside Story America

Does spying on Americans protect the US?

We examine the extent of the government’s secret, unlawful surveillance on Americans in the name of national security.

The US capital is now preparing for Barack Obama’s inauguration.

I’m really surprised by the negative reaction to what is simply business as usual in terms of this extension. Really, it seems to be a case of ‘the lady doth protest too much’. Who won the election? Who is in control of the senate? … If you look at the cases in the past of successful al-Qaeda attacks in the US the need to be able to do this is clear.”

– Sebastian Gorka, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

But it was before his inauguration four years ago that civil liberties groups had high hopes he would do away with laws put in place by his predecessor that violate US constitutional rights in the name of national security.

On Sunday, they were once again disappointed when Obama signed the re-authorisation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendment.

This law gives the government broad powers to eavesdrop on the private conversations of US citizens as long as one of the conversation participants is outside the country.

But at a time when the US Congress cannot seem to agree on anything in a timely manner – Republicans and Democrats came together and rejected all of the proposals, instead putting national security ahead of constitutional rights.

Earlier last week, several senators tried to amend the legislation to add some protection for Americans.

Former National Security Agency senior executive Thomas Drake explains the impact of the FISA on civil liberties

Senator Ron Wydens proposed an amendment that would mandate the release of information on searches that involved US citizens. It did not pass but garnered 43 votes.

Senator Jeff Merkley’s amendment would have declassified the legal opinions of the FISA court – a secret court that certifies government privacy protections. Thirty-seven senators supported his proposal.

An amendment from Senator Patrick Leahy would have required congressional approval of FISA legislation every three years instead of five. His proposal received the backing of 38 senators.

Senator Rand Paul’s amendment would have required individual search warrants for all electronic communications. It got a mere 12 votes.

There is a game of semantics going on here. When they say no American is being targeted that means they don’t pick a specific person and go up on all of their phone and email accounts. But they still do bulk collection … so the government is still getting your communications and records regardless …. Is the government without suspicion, without a warrant picking up our communications, and the answer is yes.

– Michelle Richardson, the American Civil Liberties Union counsel

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, explained what the extension to the FISA amendment means for US civil liberties.

“[The FISA Act] is one part, it’s one element of a much larger series of activities that the US is engaged in in terms of surveillance … but it has gone far beyond its original mandate … the problem is everything else that the government is doing under that mantle, that rubric of national security …. Part of the problem is much of this is being done in secret and there’s very little oversight or accountability …. It was just stunning when I found out that the White House had entered into a secret agreement with the National Security Agency to completely bypass the FISA, and by bypassing it they turned the USA into the equivalent of a foreign nation for the purposes of dragnet, blanket electronic surveillance … in secret, in secret.”

So, does spying on Americans really protect the country?

Joining Inside Story Americas for the discussion with presenter Kimberley Halkett are guests: Sebastian Gorka, a national security analyst; Michelle Richardson, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union; and Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

“At least the Wyden and Merkley proposals were decidedly meagre. Even the Leahy proposal to extend the law for only three years as opposed to five, or to reveal the workings of the secret court to the American public or to simply understand how many Americans have been impacted by this dragnet warrantless wiretapping, would be interesting things for a body to know. The precise concern is that we can’t have any degree of assurance.”

Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendment:

  • The senate re-authorises the law for another five years
  • The proposal received bipartisan backing in 2008
  • It allows the government to spy on some US citizens without a warrant
  • The government can monitor international calls and emails
  • The law authorises warrantless wiretapping
  • Opponents say FISA laws violate the 4th amendment constitutional protection
  • Supporters say FISA laws provide crucial security information
  • The FISA court – a secret court set up during US President Richard Nixon’s administration – approved the government’s privacy protection and targeting procedures
  • The debate on civil liberties in the senate was overshadowed by fiscal cliff talks