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US Senate reauthorizes FISA surveillance law

The US Senate [official website] passed the Reauthorization Act of 2012 [text, pdf] on Friday in a 73-23 vote to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008 (FISA) [text, pdf] for five years. FISA grants the National Security Agency (NSA) [official website] the authority to conduct surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and emails in attempts to protect against terrorism and other foreign threats. The law renews 2008 revisions which call for special government programs, such as the National Security Agency warrantless surveillance program [JURIST news archive], to be operated under court supervision. It also allows the government to collect communications from US companies regarding foreigners abroad so long as the foreigner is overseas. Though the issue of warrantless searches of Americans remains controversial, the US House of Representatives [official website] voted [JURIST report] 300 to 118 in September to extend the law for an additional five years. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] criticized the reauthorization [press release], describing it as "an unconstitutional spying bill that violates the Fourth Amendment and gives vast, unchecked surveillance authority to the government."

FISA has been controversial since its inception in 1978 and remains controversial in post-9/11 [JURIST backgrounder] America. In February, arguments were made that the law too heavily favors the government by creating an impossible evidentiary burden for defendants, and that Congress may have chosen to protect national security interests [JURIST op-eds] over those of criminal defendants without considering the constitution. Most recently, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] unanimously declared the law constitutional [JURIST report]. The House amendments to FISA in 2008 originally granted retroactive immunity [JURIST report] to telecommunications companies that participated in the NSA warrantless surveillance program.

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