February 12, 2008

Senate Votes to Expand Privacy Rights To Americans Abroad

Wyden Amendment will require the federal government to secure a warrant before conducting surveillance on citizens outside the United States

Washington, D.C. - In passing the FISA Amendments Act of 2007 (S.2248), the U.S. Senate today voted to approve one of the largest expansions of privacy rights in the last thirty years. S.2248 which makes a number of changes to U.S. surveillance law contains a provision originally written by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that will ensure that Americans who travel outside the United States possess the same privacy rights that they enjoy on U.S. soil.

"In the digital age, an American's relationship with his or her government should not depend on physical geography," Wyden said. "I think history will recognize this as an important achievement and a major step forward for privacy rights."

During the Intelligence Committee's consideration of the bill, Wyden introduced an amendment, co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), that would require the U.S. government to get a warrant before conducting electronic surveillance on Americans overseas. Under current law, while the federal government is required to get a warrant before deliberately surveilling Americans inside the United States, warrant protections do not always apply to Americans who are physically located outside the country.

After the senators' amendment was accepted by a bipartisan majority of the Committee, the White House objected to the provision, calling it "a step backwards." While Senator Wyden and his colleagues declined to accept the idea that Americans' rights should change when they travel abroad, they worked with both Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Vice Chairman Kit Bond (R-MO) to modify the language to ensure that the amendment would not have unintended consequences. In the process, the modifications actually expand the amendment's original scope to include physical searches as well as electronic surveillance.

"Senator Feingold, Senator Whitehouse and I have put in a lot of hours fighting for this provision," Wyden said. "I would like to thank Senators Rockefeller and Bond for working with us not only to move this amendment forward, but to ensure that it will not have a negative impact on U.S. national security. I hope that the White House will drop its objections and accept this agreement."

Wyden voted against final passage of S.2248 because the bill also grants blanket retroactive immunity to any telecommunications company accused of participating in President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.

"I have carefully reviewed the details of the President's warrantless wiretapping program." Wyden said. "I even travelled to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to read the classified legal opinions and correspondence between the executive branch and certain telecommunications companies. Nothing I have seen has convinced me that this program was legal and I see no way in which a reasonable person could have gone nearly six years without questioning the government's assertions of its legality."