2008 July 9

FISA Extension Act Expands Government Surveillance Powers


The 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Extension Act, passed by Congress on this day and signed into law by President George W. Bush the following day, expanded the government’s powers of surveillance under the FISA Act of October 25, 1978. FISA was originally passed to regulate government surveillance in the area of national security, but civil libertarians argued that it was essentially ineffective in preventing illegal surveillance. The 2008 amendments prohibited states from investigating telecommunications companies for alleged complicity with National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance activities, allowed the government not to keep records of searches and to destroy documents, granted telecommunications companies legal immunity for cooperating with the government, and increased the time limit for warrantless surveillance from 48 hours to 7 days, among other changes.

Critics of NSA surveillance argue that the 2008 amendments helped to facilitate and certainly did not effectively control the abuses of NSA spying that were exposed by documents leaked by Edward Snowden on June 5, 2013. Some critics, however, argue that the Snowden documents indicated that NSA spying was already far more extensive than anyone realized, including more extensive than the revelations published by The New York Times on December 16, 2005.

Congress passed an intelligence reform law on June 2, 2015 that for the first time scaled back the government’s intelligence gathering powers. The new law prohibited the government from storing “bulk data” about the communications of Americans. Private communications companies store the data, and the government can only obtain specific records with a warrant from the FISA Court. Also, the law directed the NSA to declassify certain important decisions, adding a new degree of transparency to the FISA Court. Finally, private individuals will be able to appear before the FISA Court in particular cases and argue in favor of greater privacy protections.

Learn more about the history of the NSA: James Bamford, The Shadow Factory: the Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America (2008)

Learn more about government surveillance: https://www.aclu.org/time-rein-surveillance-state-0

Read about Edward Snowden: Luke Harding, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man (2014)


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