There's a highly charged debate going on in Congress over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (commonly referred to as FISA).
The FISA law was enacted in 1978 in response to revelations of electronic surveillance abuses by the Nixon Administration. It has come to provide the statutory framework our intelligence agencies use to collect foreign intelligence information by electronically surveiling foreign powers and their agents, both inside and out of the U.S.
The current FISA law has worked well for over thirty years. In my view, it strikes an appropriate balance between our national security concerns and our civil liberties. In three decades, the secret FISA court has never turned down a single request for a surveillance warrant. A warrant can be obtained literally within minutes. If that's too long to wait, the surveillance can be carried out and a warrant requested after the fact.
An updating of this law to reflect technological advances is warranted, but the real contention in this debate involves whether or not to give the major telecommunications carriers retroactive legal immunity, meaning they cannot be held accountable by the public for any illegal wiretapping that may have occurred in the early years of the Bush Administration. After 9/11, some telecom carriers coordinated with the Bush Administration to carry out possibly illegal, warrantless surveillance on American citizens, bypassing the FISA law in the name of national security.
In an effort to get the telecom industry retroactive legal immunity, the President and his allies in Congress are trying to scare the public into believing that without their version of FISA, which strips the courts of much of its oversight role, the intelligence agencies cannot do their jobs and thus we are less safe.
Our nation is supposed to be governed by the rule of law within a balance of powers — not unilateral decisions by the executive branch. We must not sacrifice our constitutional rights wholesale in the name of national security. The current FISA law, with minor adjustments to account for changes in telecommunications infrastructure, strikes that balance.
The House stands ready to pass a FISA update today, but not with language giving a free pass to the telecom providers who teamed with the administration to infringe on Americans' civil liberties. That is a matter which should be decided in a court of law.