Dear Ms. :
I write this in response to your communication indicating your concerns on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) now before the Senate. This bill has passed the House of Representatives.
This legislation contains multiple sections, including one that deals specifically with liability for telecommunications companies. However, the primary intent to this new bill is to modernize our intelligence gathering capacity. The technology and communications industries have seen vast changes in the past thirty years since FISA was first written in 1978. This has changed the way surveillance is conducted, and the original law cannot adequately address these procedures. This is precisely why FISA needs to be modernized.
It is important to understand the consequences if the Senate does not pass this bill. We would either have to extend the temporary surveillance bill passed last August - which should not happen - or allow surveillance on certain foreign targets to expire which would lay the Nation bare and decrease our ability to identify and protect against terrorist threats. Neither of these options is acceptable.
I strongly believe that this bill is substantially better than the version the Senate passed in February 2008, which I opposed. It is also a major improvement from the Protect America Act that passed in August 2007, which had few privacy protections and was never intended to be a permanent solution. This bill:
oIncludes provisions I authored that make clear that FISA is the exclusive (or only) authority for conducting surveillance inside the United States. This is crucial as it requires that all future Presidents must act only within the law. FISA would be the only legal authority for conducting surveillance on Americans for intelligence purposes, and only legislation that specifically provides wiretapping authority in the future would be an exception to FISA.
oRequires the government to obtain a warrant before surveillance can begin. This applies to all Americans - anywhere in the world. The Protect America Act allowed surveillance for up to six months before getting a warrant. This bill ends all warrantless surveillance of U.S. persons. In this sense it is precedent setting.
oBans reverse targeting, which was a concern under the Protect America Act. Reverse targeting would allow the government to collect the contents of telephone calls and e-mails of an American by conducting surveillance on the people with whom they communicate. This is prohibited in this bill.
oRequires that the government implement procedures approved by the Court for minimization. If an American's communication is incidentally caught up in electronic surveillance while the Government is targeting someone else, minimization protects that person's private information. This has been a hallmark of FISA for 30 years, but court review and approval of minimization procedures was not included in the Protect America Act. It is here.
oRequires the government to receive a warrant to conduct surveillance on an American outside of the United States. This means that Americans' privacy rights are protected everywhere around the world. A court warrant has never been required outside the United States before; this would be the strongest protection ever.
I understand your concern regarding Title II of this bill, which creates a process that may result in immunity for telecommunications companies that are alleged to have provided assistance to the Government. I agree that this is not the best approach to the current legal challenges to these companies. Earlier this year, I authored an amendment that would require court review of the legality of these companies' alleged actions. Under my proposal, cases against the companies would only be dismissed if the Court found that they acted legally. I continue to believe this is the right approach. I have joined as a co-sponsor on an amendment which accomplishes this, and will vote for it when it is able to come to the floor.
There may be amendments offered to the FISA legislation to strip or modify the telecom immunity provisions. Know that I will support any that I believe improve the current bill.
Bottom line: this FISA legislation, while not perfect, would bring intelligence activities back under U.S. law. It provides significant improvement in oversight and accountability of our intelligence collection programs while still giving the intelligence community the tools needed to keep our Nation safe. And, it provides the strongest privacy protections to U.S. persons in history.
In conclusion, I have served on the Intelligence Committee for seven years and I take the responsibility extremely seriously. If there is no bill, our Nation goes bare in mid-August, unless the Protect America Act, which does not offer, even remotely, the privacy protections for U.S. persons that are included in this bill, is extended. Additionally, the President - any President - cannot enact a program outside of this law in the future.
I hope this helps you understand my concerns. Attached to this letter, you will find my statement on the Senate floor from June 25, 2008.
Statement of Senator Dianne Feinstein