Donnelly responds to LWV on FISA, civil liberties

(The following was passed along to DW from a reader who is also a member of the local League of Women Voters. The original letter-to-the-editor follows Donnelly’s response.)

April 3, 2008

Dear Ms. Plencner,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me about revisions to the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). I value your views, and your input helps
me to better represent the people of Indiana’s Second District in Congress.

My top priority as your Congressman is to ensure that our country is
equipped to prevent and respond to threats against American interests, both at home and abroad. Nothing is more important to me than protecting our nation from those who would do us harm.

As you know, the 1978 FISA law governs the domestic collection of foreign intelligence. Last summer, our intelligence agencies disclosed that a large backlog of FISA court warrant requests had formed because the law had not adequately been updated to take into account technological advancements. In addition, the decision by a federal intelligence court judge that even some foreign-to-foreign communications require FISA review further underscored the need to modernize existing surveillance law.

On August 4, 2007, I joined the House of Representatives in passing S. 1927, The Protect America Act, which the president signed into law the next day on August 5. S. 1927 was designed to temporarily allow the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General to collect electronic surveillance of individuals reasonably believed to be outside the United States without a FISA court warrant. If the subject of the requested surveillance was located inside the United States, the FISA court was required to review and authorize the request before any surveillance was conducted. This six-month law, temporary by design to allow in-depth debate and the careful crafting of a responsible and permanent update to FISA law, expired on February 16, 2008.

On February 14, I voted to extend the temporary law for another 21 days to allow Congress and the President more time to complete an update of FISA law. The extension failed to pass the House and following that vote, I voted against a motion to adjourn for the upcoming Presidents’ Day recess because I felt that Congress needed to stay in session until we could bring the FISA matter to resolution. Although the Protect America Act has expired, America has not been left in the dark. Existing surveillance warrants authorized under the expired law will remain valid through August, and law enforcement and intelligence officials still possess all the tools they did prior to last August as the permanent, 1978 FISA law is still in effect.

As you probably know, one contentious issue has been whether Congress should provide existing immunity protections retroactively to telecommunications companies that may have cooperated with President Bush‘s now defunct warrantless surveillance program. To date, the full House has not considered any legislation providing retroactive immunity.

I believe Congress and the president should put aside their partisan differences and get down to the business of crafting a new FISA law for the 21st Century that provides the necessary tools to the intelligence community to keep American secure, while also safeguarding our civil liberties.

Thank you again for contacting me about this important issue. Please do not hesitate to write, call or email me again if I can ever be of assistance. Also, if you would like to receive regular updates on my actions on your behalf in Congress, sign up for my e-newsletter, The Donnelly Dispatch, at http://donnelly.

Joe Donnelly
Member of Congress


As reported in The Tribune, U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, voted to allow a vote on a resolution to extend the Protect America Act. Although the measure failed, the House will likely revisit this issue in the future.

We, the board of the League of Women Voters of South Bend, urge Donnelly to take a stand against the administration’ s pressure to pass S. 2248, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2007. We also urge Congress to support legislation that will ensure that government agencies obtain individual court warrants before wiretapping the communications of Americans and make sure telecommunications providers do not receive blanket retroactive immunity for violating the rights of innocent citizens.

For 88 years the League of Women Voters has been a strong advocate of the democratic principles that serve as a bedrock of our republic. Certain fundamental principles guard our freedoms and these must be preserved. These include independent judicial review of law enforcement actions and prohibition on indiscriminate searches.

While we recognize that our nation must guard against terrorism and other threats to national security, it cannot violate basic Constitutional principles while claiming to protect itself. As such, wholesale warrantless wiretapping of Americans is unacceptable.

Lisa A. Plencner

President, League of Women Voters, South Bend


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