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.