Rights groups greet reform with fire and brimstone

As expected, President Bush signed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 into law Thursday morning, revamping the United States’ aging surveillance rules and granting telecommunications companies amnesty for their assistance in a post-9/11 mass wiretap.

Under the new law, the government gains a number of sweeping new surveillance powers, in addition to a number of additional limitations to work under. One such expansion allows the government to force e-mail providers to forward the government all communications where one side of the party is believed to be overseas – including e-mail, phone conversations, and text messages. Such surveillance includes a number of rules designed to protect the privacy of American citizens.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union announced a counterattack just hours after the law’s signing, filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of a wide range of plaintiffs, including attorneys, journalists, and human rights organizations.

Journalists Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein of The Nation said the law creates a chilling effect on their international reporting -- since their jobs requires speaking with overseas parties that often work against American objectives, their contacts might be wary of further communication. Hedges, in particular, says that one of his sources – a secret contact close to Hamas – is already more hesitant to speak openly.

Hedges compared the passage of FISA to the tactics of authoritarian regimes he had previously worked inside, noting that their objective was to openly “prevent any dissidents, anybody who had information that countered the government” from contacting him.

“I have little doubt that the passing of this FISA bill essentially brings this type of surveillance system, and the effectiveness of that system, to the United States,” said Hedges.

The ACLU’s lawsuit asks the court to stay FISA’s immunity provisions until their constitutionality is fully evaluated.

The EFF says it will continue its supervision of the – possibly doomed – 40+ lawsuits filed against AT&T, Verizon, and others, and it is also “preparing a new case” against the government for its wiretapping program, “past, present, and future.”

Both the EFF and ACLU argue that the FISA’s dismissal of the lawsuits – the legislative branch interfering with the judicial branch, essentially – violates the constitutional principle of separated government powers.

The FISA amendments’ opponents fought long and hard in their attempts to scuttle the law before its signing, with opposition Senators attempting to stall proceedings with a filibuster and amendments that would have watered it down. Congress ultimately voted down these attempts, and instead allowed the bill a swift trip through both branches of Congress. Previous FISA law was set to expire in August, and many feel that Congress hastened the amendments’ passage in order push them out the door before the deadline. Previous attempts to update FISA died in Congress earlier this year, after grinding into a Congressional deadlock – talks were immensely complicated by a Presidential vow to veto any reform that failed to include the immunity provision.

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