The House Reauthorizes the FISA Amendments Act, but Opposition Grows Among House Democrats

I care very passionately about Fourth Amendment rights, and of all the legislation on this issue, the FISA Amendments Act is possibly the worst. Hurriedly passed in 2008 with the Bush administration having one foot out the door, it retroactively immunized telecommunications companies from liability relating to their blatant disregard of laws intended to keep Americans’ phone calls secret. It allowed the executive branch to spy on Americans’ communications and retain their content, provided that the intent was to capture the content of communications with foreign nationals relating to terrorism – and who can say what the intent was? It was a blank check for the executive to do as it pleased, and perhaps that’s why then-Senator Obama voted for it.

You might think, then, that a House held by a party that waxes at length about how America is groaning under the tyranny of the Marxist-in-chief might oppose reissuing that blank check. As it turns out, not so much. The final vote tally was 301-118 in favor, including 227 Republican Yea votes.

So, what’s going on? What is happening to House Democratic support for civil liberties? And why are House Republicans giving the Obama administration a blank check on this, and only this issue?

Unexpectedly, among House Democrats, it’s not because the change in President has made them newly comfortable with warrantless surveillance. In 2008, when the law was originally proposed, 128 Democrats voted Yes, as opposed to 74 today. Many more House Democrats opposed it in 2012 than opposed it in 2008, even with a Democrat in the White House. 12 Democrats voted Nay in 2008 and Yea in 2012, and 9 Democrats moved the other way. However, Democrats new to the House, elected in 2008 and 2010, were much more likely to oppose reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act. This is presumably because warrantless surveillance was a hot issue with the Democratic base during the last years of the Bush administration, making it more likely that freshman Democrats would have run on opposition to warrantless surveillance relative to Democrats previously in the House.

The seven Nay votes among Republicans came from Amash (R-MI), Duncan (R-TN), Gibson (R-NY), Johnson (R-IL), Jones (R-NC), McClintock (R-CA) and Paul (R-TX ). They’re not Tea Party Caucus people (only two of its 61 members opposed reauthorization); instead, Ron Paul’s Liberty Caucus is leading the way.  We can deduce from this that the Tea Party folks really don’t care about the Fourth Amendment, or alternatively that they really think that the surveillance covered under the FISA Amendments Act relates only to foreign nationals. Freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) asked tellingly during the one hour of debate allowed, “Are we to believe that the Fourth Amendment applies to the entire world?”, and many other speeches showed that House supporters of reauthorization thought it related only to foreign nationals.

Let me be blunt (I’m not that good at being tactful). There’s no out. There are no exceptions. The Constitution applies always, and people who claim it doesn’t can go suck it. Our Fourth Amendment should apply to every US government action anywhere in the world. Other governments’ actions can be bound by their own constitutions. But each government actor swears to uphold the Constitution, and they should do it. When the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay was set up, it was set up there on the theory that Guantanamo Bay was not US soil and the Constitution therefore didn’t apply there. I believe that wherever in the world the US government exercises control, its acts should be bound by the US constitution. If the US government wants to argue that the US constitution doesn’t apply at Guantanamo, then no legal vacuum can exist, and the US government is therefore bound in its actions there by the constitution of Cuba, from whom the US government leases Guantanamo Bay. And who wants that?

The courts, unfortunately, have endorsed executive abuses of the Fourth Amendment in part, and have introduced invalid distinctions between US governments spying on American nationals and US governments spying on foreign nationals. One day, I hope to see those distinctions overturned, and a uniform standard of probable cause applying to all surveillance efforts.

The FISA Amendments Act reauthorization now moves to the Senate. Please write your Senator to let them know that, for the sake of all of us, this vicious legislation should be allowed to die. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), to his immense credit, has put a hold on the reauthorization; please thank him here.

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