No Time to Read FISA Amendments Act


I’ll be joining Nancy Watzman in posting stories about bills that were rushed to debate with little time for Congress to read the bill. These stories are part of Sunlight’s efforts to require bills to be made publicly available for 72 hours before Congress brings them up for debate. This installment focuses on the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which was only made available 17 hours prior to consideration. You can join our efforts at and tweet about it with the #readthebill hashtag.

For the better part of 2008, Congress was engaged in a bitter debate over a warrantless wiretapping program initiated by the Bush administration and how to make it fit into a legal framework. In the summer of 2007, two years after the wiretapping program was uncovered by the New York Times, President George W. Bush announced that he would seek a temporary amendment to bring the wiretapping under the umbrella of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court. That bill, the Protect America Act of 2007, was highly controversial and in 2008 Congress sought to make permanent an amendment to create a legal structure for judicial review of wiretaps. That permanent fix became known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act.

The permanent fix Congress sought was loaded with controversy and negotiations between the House and Senate leadership went on for months. Once they reached a compromise, however, they did did not release the details of the final bill until the day before the House of Representatives began consideration. The legislation contained numerous provisions amending the 30-year-old law governing surveillance including permitting the government to: target individuals for surveillance without a warrant for up to 7 days, not keep records of searches, not include detailed descriptions of the nature of the information or property targeted, and eavesdrop in emergencies without court approval, so long as papers are filed within 7 days.

Sparking much of the controversy was a provision providing immunity from lawsuits for all telecommunications companies complicit in the wiretapping. Liberal bloggers, libertarians, and civil liberty groups were livid over the inclusion of this retroactive immunity. The ACLU, MoveOn, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) launched a campaign to stop the passage of the bill.

On June 20, 2008, after two hours of debate, the bill passed the House by a 293-129 vote. After the bill’s passage by the House, the EFF denounced the House Leadership after they “rushed to the floor today” to pass the bill “after its introduction yesterday.”

The Senate took a slower approach to the bill as some lawmakers, led by Sens. Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold, sought to filibuster. The Senate passed the legislation in July and the President subsequently signed it into law.

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  • Tosk59

    Sounds like a good idea, but will **not** be as useful as you think. I sometimes do read proposed legislation that is on subjects that interest me, and I can tell you that there is a huge variation – sometimes I understand what is proposed, sometimes it is well-nigh impossible.

    For example I read the 528-page ARRA (HR 1) when originally posted and understood it just fine, certainly well enough for the purpose of providing feedback to my senators and representatives. However, a contra-example is from the example you refer to, FISA. When that was working its way through I printed and read, and could barely make out what was go on: 100’s of pages refering to previous legislation, striking XXX and replacing with YYY, changing subsection/para/line from ‘and’ to ‘but’, etc. IMPOSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND (see below for an example. Opponents said “this bill changes X, allows Y, is unconstitutional.” Proponents said “Nonsense, this just ratifies the status quo” or “no, this just updates the law to catch up with technology”, etc. I had no basis for understanding who was characterizing the bill accurately, how exactly was I to tell?

    Bottom line: this is just step 1, the posting should be accompanied by “plain English” explanations of intent and what is being included. If a modification to previous legislation this is absolutely necessary! Otherwise, forget it, you could post 365 days ahead of time a nd not help me one whit!

    b) Use of Information-

    (1) IN GENERAL- Section 106(k)(1)(B) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1806(k)(1)(B)) is amended by striking ‘sabotage or international terrorism’ and inserting ‘sabotage, international terrorism, or the international proliferation of weapons of mass destruction’.

    (2) PHYSICAL SEARCHES- Section 305(k)(1)(B) of such Act (50 U.S.C. 1825(k)(1)(B)) is amended by striking ‘sabotage or international terrorism’ and inserting ‘sabotage, international terrorism, or the international proliferation of weapons of mass destruction’.

    (c) Technical and Conforming Amendments- The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 is further amended–

    (1) in paragraph (2) of section 105(d) (50 U.S.C. 1805(d)), as redesignated by section 105(a)(5) of this Act, by striking ‘section 101(a) (5) or (6)’ and inserting ‘paragraph (5), (6), or (7) of section 101(a)’;

    (2) in section 301(1) (50 U.S.C. 1821(1)), by inserting ‘weapon of mass destruction,’ after ‘person,’; and

    (3) in section 304(d)(2) (50 U.S.C. 1824(d)(2)), by striking ‘section 101(a) (5) or (6)’ and inserting ‘paragraph (5), (6), or (7) of section 101(a)’.

  • Ogre

    There are lots of folks that would actually enjoy being involved in the “process”. If you demand that all bills be provided in digital form and break it up to members of “staff” even if they are volunteers, you could get a pretty good idea of what a bill was actually doing in less than a day. I have years of experience in going through contracts with a yellow marker (for instance) and there are lots of folks like me out there. All some sharp congersman has to do is put the resourses in his district to work. Whichever side of an issue they may be on, most would give an honest evaluation of what the bill actually says. This would give the congresperson (previous spelling…see “Pogo”.) One helluva opportunity to be one step ahead of the pack on the floor.