Unwarranted Intrusion

On June 11, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) temporarily blocked the renewal of legislation that allows the U.S. government to listen in, without a warrant, on Americans’ conversations, so long as they’re chatting with overseas chums who are the official targets of the eavesdropping. In doing so, Wyden not only stood against a bipartisan cabal of snoopy legislative colleagues, but also against the White House, which wants the extension passed and is vigorously battling against constitutional challenges to such electronic eavesdropping. That may come as a bit of a surprise to anybody who remembers then-presidential candidate Barack Obama promising to end the use of warrantless wiretaps that were so popular under the George W. Bush administration.

What do you have to hide?

Strictly speaking, Obama didn’t break his promise after he won the presidency; no, he managed that after sewing up the Democratic nomination, when he voted for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments of 2008, now up for renewal. That legislation gave cover to a policy that was already in effect, but was illegal. So, when Sen. Obama voted for the FISA amendment in 2008, he joined his colleagues in supporting a bill that immunized telecommunications companies against the flurry of lawsuits they faced for collaborating with government snoops in their then-illicit activities. The law also “permits the NSA to intercept phone calls and e-mails between the U.S. and a foreign location, without making any showing to a court and without judicial oversight, whether or not the communication has anything to do with al Qaeda—indeed, even if there is no evidence that the communication has anything to do with terrorism, or any threat to national security,” as Marty Lederman, of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel put it so well, before he took his current job in the Obama administration.

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