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25 Dec, 2013

Americans Urged to Reject NSA Domestic Spying by Opposing the FISA Improvements Act


by ROBERT MCCAW for ISLAMiCommentary

DECEMBER 24, 2013 – Your privacy rights depend on Congress rejecting the FISA Improvements Act (S. 1631). Introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the bill seeks to codify and expand the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass domestic surveillance programs, authorizing the spy agency’s bulk collection of nearly every citizen’s phone records and gathering of internet records.

The FISA Improvements Act would legalize the very same NSA surveillance programs that Federal District Court Judge Richard Leon last Monday was ruled likely unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge Leon said that the government’s “almost Orwellian” collection of American phone records seemed to be a violation the Fourth Amendment’s ban of unreasonable searches and seizures.

The president’s own review panel convened to evaluate the NSA’s domestic spying program’s effect on privacy, civil liberties and public trust recently issued similar advice, stating that “the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about US persons.”

Most importantly, the majority of Americans oppose the U.S. government’s collection of their private communications.

Only Congress can put an end to NSA’s secret collection of Americans’ phone records and internet activities; programs that are backed by President Obama and some elected officials.

We should question why some members in Congress would support an act that the authorizes the same type of mass surveillance the president’s own advisors, a federal court judge, and the American people believe is not acceptable.

Common sense dictates that Congress simply abandons support for the FISA Improvements Act.

A disappointment to many Americans, Congress has for some time been unable to pass common sense reform on a range of pressing issues – including immigration, gun control, job creation, education, or poverty and inequality reduction, to name a few lingering problems that remain unmet by our lawmakers.

That is why the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, last week joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and 51 other civil liberties and public interest organizations in a letter to congressional leadership publically opposing the act.

We make the claim that the NSA’s “shadow of surveillance chills freedom of speech, undermines confidence in US Internet companies, and runs afoul of the Constitution.”

However, a letter to Congress is not enough. As American Muslims have learned from the persecuted groups that have gone before them and struggle today in asserting their civil rights: the key role for citizens in a democracy is to participate.

As a nation we must join together in denouncing the NSA’s mass collection of our communications as unlawful. We need to make use of the very communication tools that are being surveilled – phone, email, and social networks – to contact our members of Congress and demand real FISA reforms.

Rejection of bad legislation is not enough to restore the privacy rights of all citizens.

Thankfully a real legislative solution exists within the USA Freedom Act (H.R. 3361/ S. 1599), sponsored by Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI). It is an act that has been endorsed by CAIR and a number of other leading national civil liberties organizations.

Instead of offering fig-leaf fixes, the USA Freedom Act will “end the dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of The USA PATRIOT Act and ensure that other authorities cannot be used to justify similar dragnet collection” and “provide more safeguards for warrantless surveillance under the FISA Amendments Act,” according to the bill’s sponsors.

The bill also includes other “significant privacy and oversight provisions, provides for the creation of a special advocate to focus on the protection of privacy rights and civil liberties before the FISA Court, and requires more detailed public reporting about the numbers and types of FISA orders that are issued.”

Last July, a similar bipartisan amendment introduced by Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI) lost by only 12 votes on the House floor. The amendment would have striped from the NSA any money used to monitor the communications of Americans not already the subject of an ongoing investigation.

Now is the time to build congressional support for the USA Freedom Act as a viable alternative to the FISA Improvements Act. If Congress is listening to the American people, it will support and defend the privacy rights of its citizens and not the NSA-surveillance state.

Robert McCaw is the government affairs manager at CAIR’s national headquarters on Capitol Hill.

CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.