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Profile: Domestic Surveillance Oversight Act

Domestic Surveillance Oversight Act was a participant or observer in the following events:

The Senate Judiciary Committee issues an interim report titled “FISA Implementation Failures” that finds the FBI has mishandled and misused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in its anti-terrorism measures. The report is written by Arlen Specter (R-PA), Charles Grassley (R-IA), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). [US Congress, 2/2003] Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) not only refused to take part in the report, he issues a letter protesting the report’s findings. Other committee members were invited to take part in drafting the report, but none did so. [Salon, 3/3/2003] Specter says just after the report is issued, “The lack of professionalism in applying the law has been scandalous. The real question is if the FBI is capable of carrying out a counterintelligence effort.” According to the report, both the FBI and the Justice Department routinely employ excessive secrecy, suffer from inadequate training, weak information analysis, and bureaucratic bottlenecks, and will stifle internal dissent to excess as part of their usage of the expanded powers provided under FISA. The report uses as a case study the instance of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui (see August 16, 2001), who stands accused of conspiring with the 9/11 hijackers. FBI officials in Washington impeded efforts by its agents in Minneapolis, most notably former FBI agent Coleen Rowley, to secure a FISA warrant that would have allowed those agents to search Moussaoui’s laptop computer and belongings before the attack. [US Congress, 2/2003; Associated Press, 2/25/2003] “September 11 might well have been prevented,” says Specter. “What are they doing now to prevent another 9/11?” Grassley adds that in closed Senate hearings, they learned that two supervisors who handled the case did not understand the basic elements of FISA, and a senior FBI attorney could not provide the legal definition of “probable cause,” a key element needed to obtain a FISA warrant. [Associated Press, 2/25/2003] “I hate to say this,” Leahy observes, “but we found that the FBI is ill-equipped” to conduct surveillance on those in the United States possibly plotting terrorist acts on behalf of foreign powers. [Salon, 3/3/2003]
Lack of Cooperation from FBI, Justice Department - The report says that neither the FBI nor the Justice Department were cooperative with the Judiciary Committee in the committee’s efforts to investigate either agency’s actions under FISA, routinely delaying their responses to Congressional inquiries and sometimes ignoring them altogether. The report says that perhaps the most troubling of its findings is “the lack of accountability that has permeated the entire application procedure.” The report notes that although Congressional oversight is critical to ensure a transparent, effective usage of FISA powers (augmented under the USA Patriot Act) that do not stray from legal boundaries, such oversight has been discouraged by both the FBI and the Justice Department. [US Congress, 2/2003] The Justice Department dismisses the report as “old news.” [Patrick Leahy, 2/27/2003] Grassley says, “I can’t think of a single person being held accountable anywhere in government for what went on and what went wrong prior to Sept. 11. It seems that nobody in government makes any mistakes anymore.” [Salon, 3/3/2003]
Spark for New Legislation - The three senators use the report as a springboard to introduce a bill, the “Domestic Surveillance Oversight Act,” which will allow Congress to more closely oversee oversee FBI surveillance of Americans and government surveillance of public libraries, would supervise FISA usage in criminal cases, and disclose the secret rules of the FISA court to Congress. [Associated Press, 2/25/2003] Even though all three senators support a lowering of the standards by which a FISA warrant can be issued, the American Civil Liberties Union says it supports the bill, with reservations. “There’s a lot of concern in this country that, especially with the USA PATRIOT Act, FISA has become a massive tool for secret surveillance,” says ACLU lawyer Timothy Edgar. “One way to assuage those concerns—or show that they’re true—is to have more reporting.” Edgar says that the ACLU worries about the lowering of the standards for such warrants, but as long as the bill implement. [Salon, 3/3/2003] The question of the bill becomes moot, however, as it will never make it out of committee. [US Congress - Senate Judiciary Committee, 3/2003]

Entity Tags: USA Patriot Act, Robert S. Mueller III, Tim Edgar, Patrick J. Leahy, Senate Judiciary Committee, Marion (“Spike”) Bowman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Arlen Specter, Domestic Surveillance Oversight Act, Charles Grassley, Zacarias Moussaoui

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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