Neither Congress nor the White House has proved itself capable of reaching a decision on how to begin trimming the $16.5 trillion national debt with which these two institutions have saddled the American taxpayers. They even have been unable to come up with a reasonable measure to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” they themselves constructed months ago. Yet, when it comes to expanding the power of the government to spy on American citizens without warrants, both the House and the Senate last week fairly tripped over themselves in a rush to pass legislation doing just that; with President Obama almost gleefully waiting to sign the bill.
The power to electronically surveill citizens without so much as asking a judge for leave to do so, stems from 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The rapid action by the Congress last Friday was prompted by fear that this extraordinary power would lapse at the end of this month – forcing Uncle Sam to actually justify its surveillance by seeking a warrant in advance of spying on citizens.
The federal government’s abject fear it might actually have to meet the constitutional requirement of having a good reason to eavesdrop on American citizens’ conversations before doing so, prompted a majority of Republicans and Democrats in the Congress – who can hardly agree on the time of day right now – to come together and make sure our intelligence agencies were not going to be hamstrung by law or the Bill of Rights.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid led the fight for surveillance with the standard, post-911 cry that such extraordinary power was absolutely “necessary to protect us from the evil in this world.” His colleagues on both sides of the aisle quickly fell in line, saluted, and passed the measure by a lop-sided vote of 73 to 23. The House had offered similarly little opposition.
The dismissive manner in which the Senate refused seriously to consider a handful of amendments that would have brought a minor degree of accountability to the FISA reauthorization was particularly distressing:
· Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) proposed reducing the FISA Amendment’s sunset clause to two-and-a-half years, rather than the bill’s proposed five years, in order to allow for greater debate on the impact of FISA on privacy. This amendment was defeated 38 to 52.