With United States intelligence gathering capabilities set to be hobbled on February 1st, the Senate has scheduled a cloture vote on Monday for legislation that would allow the government to continue protecting Americans from foreign terrorist attacks. A bi-partisan coalition defeated a substitute bill favored by trial lawyers and progressive activists Thursday that would have punished American companies for cooperating with national security initiatives.
At issue is the modernization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which regulates how US intelligence agencies can monitor foreign communications. Originally passed in 1978, FISA allowed agencies to monitor international calls by intercepting the radio waves that bounced off satellites. By 2001 however, most international communications occurred through fiber-optic cables, many of which are in the US. FISA requires individual warrants for any monitoring of these cables even if they are purely foreign to foreign communications. The bi-partisan coalition behind the current Senate bill wants to update FISA so US intelligence can monitor these communications legally without getting a warrant for every foreign target.
Progressive activists and trial lawyers are fine with these changes to the law, but they also want to punish any American companies that cooperated with the Government before this technical fix was made. This despite the fact that to date privacy absolutists have been unable to point to any actual harm that individual Americans have suffered due to government surveillance. Punishing cooperative companies would be a disaster for American security since any company would be foolish to ever cooperate with the government on security again. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-WV) explains, “At the end of the day, it was clear to us that the companies believed their cooperation was necessary, legal and would help stop future terrorist attacks.”
The Senate is set to vote on Monday to stop debate on the bill so it can move towards final passage. Some Democrats have threatened to veto the bill and the issue has “underscored the deep divisions among Democrats on the surveillance issue.“