Merkley Introduces Bill to Prevent Warrantless Surveillance of Americans

Washington, DC- Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Protect America’s Privacy Act, which would reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to ensure that intelligence agencies are not using a warrantless wiretapping program to collect and store emails and phone calls of American citizens.  

Under amendments to FISA passed during the Bush administration, the intelligence agencies may conduct warrantless wiretapping, potentially collecting vast amounts of communications and data, so long as they reasonably believe the communications involve individuals who are located outside of the United States and who are not U.S. citizens. However, there are loopholes in the current statute that could permit the intelligence community to intentionally or unintentionally collect and store the communications of American citizens and others living in the U.S. and to mine data collected from Americans without a warrant.  National security agencies have not even released estimates of how often Americans’ communications are swept up by the warrantless wiretapping program.  

“Keeping Americans safe versus protecting American’s privacy is a false choice. We have a moral and Constitutional duty to do both,” Merkley said. “We can ensure our government has the tools to spy on our enemies without giving it a license to intrude into the private lives of American citizens.  This bill will establish new safeguards to respect the principles of the Fourth Amendment protections from government intrusion without a warrant while ensuring that the intelligence community has the tools it needs to combat terrorism.” 

“This bill will give the FISA Amendments Act the overhaul it so desperately needs, restraining the government from unconstitutionally collecting and using vast amounts of data about innocent Americans,” said Michelle Richardson, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “These amendments would allow collection against foreigners to continue while better protecting Americans and should be considered a win-win for both the intelligence community and the Constitution.”  

The Protect America’s Privacy Act makes three major changes to the warrantless wiretapping program.  First, it would put stronger protections in place to ensure that the intelligence community is not using this program as an indirect way to target someone in the U.S. Second, this legislation would ensure that if a Court invalidates a warrantless wiretapping program applied for under the Act, the government must immediately stop the information acquisition and that any information collected from Americans may not be used in legal proceedings.  Third, the bill would establish a new process for ensuring that if security agencies determine that information is being collected on Americans, that information cannot be accessed or searched until a proper warrant is obtained.

The FISA Amendments Act must be reauthorized by Congress this year.