Fight Over FISA Brewing in Senate

Four senators want Americans protected from warrantless E-mail, text message searches.

Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley says Americans would be "profoundly appalled" if they knew about secret spying, but California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein disagrees.

Democrats Duel: Sen. Jeff Merkley says Americans would be "appalled" if they knew about secret spying, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein disagrees.

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A small, bipartisan group of senators is fighting to stop the extension of legislation they say gives the government access to Americans' private E-mails, text messages, and phone calls.

Time is running out to extend the FISA Amendments Act, a bill that allows the government to spy on individuals outside of the U.S. without a warrant.

FISA expires at the end of the year, and both Democratic and Republican senators, including Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, don't want it extended without a few tweaks that would guarantee Americans more privacy.

"Citizens generally assume our government is not spying on them," Merkley told U.S. News. "If they had any inkling of how this system really works, the details of which I cannot discuss, they would be profoundly appalled."

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Under FISA, Americans cannot be directly targeted, but lawmakers say a loophole in the bill allows the intelligence community to intercept conversations Americans have with people outside of the U.S.

"We have a fundamental responsibility to protect the safety and security of all Americans, but we can and must do it without invading privacy or trampling on our constitutional rights," says Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester. "Our government should never be in the business of spying on law-abiding Americans."

The legislation has been stuck in the Senate Intelligence Committee since Wyden put a hold on it, but the White House has turned up the pressureu in order to get the bill passed by the end of the year.

If Democratic leader Harry Reid wants to avoid complicated procedural maneuvering, he needs Wyden to remove his hold on FISA to bring it to the floor for a vote.

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Wyden is willing to do so, but only if he and his colleagues can offer amendments that would significantly change the intelligence community's ability tomonitor and intercept communications. He would also like to stop the National Security Agency from storing data it intercepts on American citizens.

Merkley plans on introducing a different amendment that would require the government to declassify a series of the secret court opinions or summaries that outline how the government's surveillance laws have been interpreted. Since it was created in 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has been shrouded in secrecy.

"Americans deserve the right to know what is the law and how much protection there is," Merkley says.

While Americans have always been weary of the government spying on them, little is known about how much information NSA tracks or what kinds of information is stored. And NSA has said it would violate the privacy of Americans to release a ballpark estimate of how many Americans have been swept up in the NSA's interception of international communications. Without much public scrutiny, Merkley says it's been tough to garner significant support.

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"Right now, in this electronic age, information is so easy to collect and there is so much of it," Merkley says. "Your cell phone probably has a GPS chip in it. That is great, except every place you are going it is creating a database of information. Is that being collected so that some day it can be searched without a warrant? You don't know. What about your complete cell phone records of every phone call, every purchase you have ever made? What about the text of every text message you have ever sent? We are not talking about stuff that doesn't reveal personal information, like a water bill."

Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said she's not seen any evidence that shows NSA has overstepped its boundaries and would like to pass the FISA Amendments Act as is.

"The authorities in FISA that expire at the end of the year have proven critical tools for collecting intelligence on terrorists, proliferators, cyber attackers among others. Congress must, and I believe will, pass this critical extension before Dec. 31," Feinstein told U.S. News.