In an unusual display of unity from the divided, do-nothing House, a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed through a bill that basically says, yes, the Fourth Amendment applies to electronic communications, too.
The measure, whose chief sponsors are Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, and Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, passed by a vote of 293-to-123 late Thursday night. It bars the National Security Agency, the Central intelligence Agency and other spy agencies from examining without a warrant Americans’ emails and other communications that were swept up into databases created to target foreigners.
The intelligence services argue that these communications are collected legally, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but they have never adequately explained why they cannot seek a warrant to go through them. The bill also prohibits the government from requiring a private company to alter its software to allow clandestine surveillance.
As Charlie Savage pointed out in his article today, the bill has a long way to go before it could ever become law. The intelligence agencies are already protesting, as are some members of Congress who seem overly concerned about preserving the governments’ ability to spy on its citizens without any judicial restraint or supervision.
But it is reassuring to know that lawmakers in the House are determined to impose limitations on our intelligence agencies, which have gone far beyond the parameters of the original Patriot Act, not to mention the Constitution, in their surveillance tactics.
Mr. Sensenbrenner, who introduced the 2001 Patriot Act, has been among the most vocal in making the point that it not intended to create the ability to collect, store and sift through any communication whatsoever at any time whatsoever, regardless of whether the surveillance was actually in the service of a concrete counter-terrorism operation.
Intelligence agencies aren’t supposed to open and read Americans’ physical mail without a warrant but have been trying to persuade the public of the notion that electronic communications are for some reason totally different. Apparently a majority of lawmakers in the House isn’t buying that logic anymore.View online, here.