A bill recently introduced in the Senate would legalize warrantless wiretapping at the President's discretion.
Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) introduced the bill, popularly named the Terrorist Surveillance Act of 2006, on March 16, 2006.
The bill was co-sponsored by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Olympia Snowe (R-ME).
According to a press release by Senator DeWine, the bill would allow the President to authorize wiretapping on international communications by American citizens suspected of being affiliated with a terrorist organization. All the President has to have is probable cause and a belief that surveillance of the individual is necessary to protect national security.
Currently, any surveillance of American citizen’s international communications would require a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
According to a Dec. 16, 2005 article in the New York Times entitled, “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts,” it is easier to obtain warrants this court than a normal criminal warrant. Furthermore, emergency approval for a warrant can be obtained within hours.
The Bush administration justifies their position by stating that currently the provisions aren’t quick enough to authorize wiretaps on numerous suspected terrorists.
In 2001 after 9/11, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to wiretap international communications between Americans and foreign callers.
Critics claim that this is unconstitutional and a debate endures. This bill would legalize warrantless wiretapping with safeguards.
The provisions in this bill are sweeping. The President alone can determine what American citizens are potential threats to national security. There is no authorization under this bill from Congress or a court.
The bill would allow the President to conduct surveillance for up to 45 days without a warrant, after which the President can reauthorize surveillance under one of two instances.
The President must either obtain a warrant after compiling enough evidence to do so through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or the Attorney General must certify, under oath, when the President doesn’t have sufficient evidence for a warrant that continued surveillance is necessary.
This bill would allow the President to conduct warrantless wiretapping in order to obtain the necessary evidence to get a warrant. This bill would allow unheard of Executive Power in conducting surveillance on Americans.
Essentially, as long as the Attorney General accepts the decisions of the President, surveillance of Americans could go on indefinitely. These are the safeguards advocated by the sponsors of this bill.
Supporters of the bill claim that sufficient Congressional oversight would exist to ensure that the President doesn't overstep his authority, but this is not the case.
The bill will create Terrorist Surveillance Subcommittees within both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that would have sole authority to oversee this program.
These subcommittees have no authority to accept or deny requests for wiretapping, rather the President notifies these committees of what actions are taking place.
Furthermore, anyone other than journalists that leak information about this Terrorist Surveillance Program could face a fine of up to $1 million and/or up to a 15-year jail sentence. This encourages government secrecy and leaves no accountability.
It is essential that the people know the details to a program where one person has unchecked authority to conduct countless surveillance on Americans.
According to a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union on March 16, this bill is unconstitutional -- violating the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects American citizens from unwarranted searches and seizures and requires judiciary authorization for surveillance. This bill would authorize unrestricted and unaccountable surveillance.
The ACLU also claims that the provisions in this bill restrict whistleblowers from disclosing any information about the program severely limits the ability of Americans to be informed about this program.
According to Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog group, the mainstream media has been ineffective in communicating accurately the consequences of this bill.
In two instances, the media has misrepresented the provisions of this bill.
The first occurred on March 17 -- an article in the Washington Post stated that the President would have to convince a small group of lawmakers in both the House and Senate that it was necessary to continued surveillance beyond the 45-day period. The bill states that the President doesn’t have to convince anybody, he just has to inform the subcommittees.
Another article from the Associated Press on March 23 stated that the President must obtain Congressional approval before reauthorizing surveillance after the 45-day period. Once again, the law states otherwise -- the President has the sole authority to conduct wiretapping. The Terrorist Surveillance Subcommittees merely get informed on who is getting wiretapped.
Currently, the bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.
If passed, the bill would not be permanent, rather it would sunset after five years.
If you agree or disagree with this bill, contact your Senators and/or the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and voice your opinion.
John Osborn is the community editor of the Lumberjack Newspaper out of Humboldt State University, CA. He is passionate about civil rights, justice, and accountability.
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