The US Senate approved a five-year extension on Friday of a former US president George W. Bush-era surveillance law that allows US spy agencies to conduct wiretapping on foreign citizens without a warrant.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), approved by the US House of Representatives in September, passed the Senate with a 73-23 vote and broad bipartisan support, and now goes to US President Barack Obama for his signature.
Lawmakers shot down three different attempts to add oversight and privacy safeguards to the elements of FISA that authorize the warrantless wiretapping program that was begun under Bush, without congressional authorization, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The law allows the collection of intelligence on Americans when they communicate abroad with foreigners designated as potential terror suspects by agencies like the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA).
Some critics have raised concerns that the communications of everyday Americans may be getting swept up in a vast electronic collection of telephone calls and e-mails.
FISA was first passed in 1978 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, when lawmakers acted on concerns about the widespread abuse of government wiretaps and the use of intelligence-gathering practices such as eavesdropping.
They inserted safeguards to prevent against unlawful wiretaps of US citizens. However, those safeguards were eased after Sept. 11, 2001, so that intelligence agencies could better track foreign targets, including in 2008, near the end of Bush’s second term.
US Senator Ron Wyden introduced an amendment that would require greater disclosure of information about the highly secretive wiretapping program and how it is being used, and said it was vital to institute greater protections against unreasonable violations of US citizens’ privacy.