The unbelievably-named Protect America Act, which was rammed through both houses of Congress in the last hours of this year's legislative session, amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to give the government the legal ability to do just about everything it has so far been doing illegally.
The Actpermits warrantless surveillance targeted at persons (even US citizens) reasonably believed to be located outside the US, which sounds like it legitimates what the government has been calling the Terrorist Surveillance Program. It also authorizes the government to secretly order communications service providers – phone companies, ISPs, email providers – to create back doors in their services to facilitate eavesdropping. Providers can appeal the orders to the secret FISA Court, but are immune from suit for participating. Those who refuse to comply can be held in contempt.
The Act also grandfathers in whatever current surveillance programs have received FISA Court approval. It's set to expire in six months, but programs authorized under the Act can last up to a year before needing re-authorization.
Plus, the person responsible for submitting a twice-yearly report on surveillance abuses is the Attorney General, the same Alberto Gonzales who has already lied under oath to Congress about the existence of surveillance abuses.
Democrats had prepared their own bill, featuring oversight and limits on domestic spying. President “30% Approval” Bush threatened to veto it and then blame Democrats for the lack of a bill. Facing Republican accusations that without this bill, Washington D.C. would be hit by a terrorist attack in August, the Democratically-controlled congress passed the bill.