WASHINGTON, D.C. — Four Democratic members of Washington’s congressional delegation have repeatedly voted against authorizing the kind of vast surveillance of electronic communications the National Security Agency conducted with cooperation from Microsoft, Google and other Internet companies.
The lawmakers — Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and Reps. Rick Larsen of Everett and Jim McDermott of Seattle — were concerned that emails, chats and other communications by Americans would get swept into a trove of intelligence gathered on foreigners. Among other issues, they also objected to giving Internet companies blanket immunity from turning over data obtained without warrants.
That unease prompted the four to vote against expansion of the post-Watergate Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 2008 and again in 2012. Congress passed the measures both times.
Among other things, the 2008 amendment gave retroactive protection from lawsuits to phone companies that complied with the National Security Agency (NSA)’s surveillance efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But news reports in 2009 showed the NSA went beyond even that expanded legal authority with “overcollection” of domestic emails and phone calls of Americans.
Last July, Cantwell and 12 other Senate Democrats and Republicans wrote to James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, warning of possible warrantless collection of communications by Americans and asking whether those interceptions numbered closer to 100 or to 100 million.
Four years earlier, in February 2008, Cantwell spoke on the Senate floor about what she called the blurring of the line on prohibition against spying on U.S. citizens. She accused the Bush administration of shifting to “a wholesale surveillance regime” by intercepting billions of messages and calls to sift for links to terrorists.
By then, according to The Washington Post, Microsoft had already signed on as the first partner in NSA’s data-mining operation called PRISM. Microsoft, according to The Post, became one of nine tech companies to allow the NSA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to tap into the company’s central servers. Microsoft said on Thursday it shares customer data only under legal order and only for specific accounts or identifiers.
Rep. Adam Smith, a Bellevue Democrat, voted twice to authorize the FISA amendment. In an interview Friday, Smith noted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court provides judicial oversight of the surveillance operations. He said he would be concerned if NSA could target emails of Americans without a warrant, but that isn’t the case.
But Larsen, who twice voted the other way, said this week’s revelations show the court is merely a rubber stamp, not a watchdog, for spy operations.
In a statement Friday, Larsen said the Obama administration is inappropriately using the FISA court to gather information on Americans in “broad and continuing dragnet operations. This is not the kind of behavior that Congress expected when we voted to give intelligence agencies these expanded authorities.”
In addition to Smith, former Rep. Norm Dicks of Bremerton was the delegation’s only other Democrat to vote for FISA reauthorization in 2012. All four House Republicans, including Dave Reichert of Auburn, also voted for it.
A spokesman for Rep. Suzan DelBene, a former Microsoft executive whose husband, Kurt, is president of Microsoft Office, said she shares in the concern about FISA.
DelBene, a freshman Democrat from Medina, believes more transparency and oversight is needed to understand the scope of the surveillance program and the role Microsoft and other companies played in the “broad collection of data about American individuals,” said the spokesman, Viet Shelton.
“There needs to be a public conversation about the balance between protecting civil liberties and protecting national-security interests,” Shelton said.