Is this reauthorization a step forward toward a future without terror or a leap backward, signaling the Congressional willingness to undermine citizen rights and minority well-being in the name of security?
On January 11th, the House of Representatives voted to extend the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program via the provisions from Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. Known to many as the law enabling illegal spying of citizens, the reauthorization of Section 702 of the FISA Act has been a long awaited issue; a hot button topic, which many felt should have been dealt with prior to the new year.
What is FISA?
Simply put, FISA is the legal mandate governing the observance and data collection of foreigners and agents of terror. According to the House Intelligence Committee and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, there are various explicit guidelines, the most important being that surveillance and intelligence communications may not intentionally target individuals within the United States.
Amidst the media’s coverage of the daily news, a Trump Tweet emerged and caused a strain on the FISA proceedings. In under 280 characters, his message enacted panic on the Hill by openly decrying U.S. surveillance practices.
Trump’s Tweet also fueled the misconception that NSA practices are used to monitor citizens. This is a direct shift from the initial White House platform, released earlier in the week, which advocated for FISA’s reauthorization with an explicit directive against constraints to the NSA program.
Many thought this would lead to the demise of the controversial act, finally destabilizing
this form of national security. In a seemingly shocking turn of events, it was Democrats who bolstered the reauthorization, pushing support over the edge to reach the necessary number of votes—passing 256 to 164.
According to a list compiled by The Nation’s Washington editor, George Zornick, notable Democrats, Pelosi, Hoyer, Schiff, and Wassermann Schultz (among others) undermined efforts for surveillance reform, disallowing a clause in favor of FBI warrants, proving that the widespread discourse regarding the conversation hold on security and surveillance is an egregious stereotype.
The politics of surveillance are far from partisan, as shown by online commentary which immediately followed the House vote. There was outrage from advocacy groups to Senators and journalists in between.
In Congress, Senator Rand Paul was quick to announce his disdain for the FISA decision, calling out it’s apparent infringement of Fifth Amendment Rights. While Senator John Cornyn and various seasoned security professionals were quick to condemn his statements, noting that this is a matter of national security and defense abroad rather than rampant spying at home.
The Reality of FISA 702
One could argue that the hysteria surrounding the concept of “warrantless domestic surveillance” is understandable, especially given many think this reauthorization will allow an already authoritarian-prone era of American politics to plummet into an Orwell-level society. However, its important to be educated about the reality of FISA 702. It is true that domestic surveillance is often utilized in the pursuit of enemies of the state.
Specifically, FISA provides an extension which directly ties capitalism to security, giving legal authority for programs such as PRISM and Upstream, which obtain citizen phone call and email correspondence from the likes of Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo.
However, while the ACLU is deOining this reauthorization as the ultimate authority for Trump to begin some dystopian attack on vocally critical citizens and minorities in an effort to undermine democracy, many are forgetting how vital this process is to securing the luxury of freedom that Americans hold so dear.
Reconsidering Domestic Surveillance
Still, it is true that there is a tension between democracy and the national security state. So how do we reconcile the abuse of domestic surveillance in the modern age? Following the Snowden leaks (which were the first accounts to make citizens aware of the nature of PRISM and Upstream).
President Obama was cited defending a reformed surveillance state: “We will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need
for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are. That means
reviewing the authorities of law enforcement, so we can intercept new types of
communication, but also build in privacy protections to prevent abuse.”
If we truly believe that the best defense of democracy lies in the ability to protect American citizens through the legalization of various enforcement techniques, we must also be willing to have a honest dialogue regarding the hesitation to put more restrictions on the intelligence community and executive branch.
At this present moment, while this reauthorization was necessary to NSA collection process and the preservation of national security, it also fails to establish the “appropriate balance” which was advocated for five years ago.
We would do well to consider the consequences of using this technology in an age of reactionary politicking rooted in implicit bias. If we seek to preserve American relations abroad and truly put America
First, we must ask ourselves: Is there still a genuine need for legalized wiretapping and observance of suspected terrorists, citizen or otherwise? Or is this another opportunity in which Congress is infringing upon citizen rights, effectively providing expanded executive oversight in the name of national security?