FAQ :: What is the Protect America Act?

A new law expanding the government’s spying powers gave the Bush Administration a six-month window from August 2007, to install permanent back doors in the nation’s communication networks. The legislation was passed hurriedly by Congress over the weekend of August 6, 2007, and signed into law by George Bush.

The Protect America Act removed the prohibition on warrantless spying on Americans abroad and gave the government wide powers to order communication service providers to make their networks available to government eavesdroppers.

While the nation’s spy laws have been continually loosened since the 911 attacks, the Administration never pushed for the right to tap the nation’s domestic communication networks until a secret court recently struck down a key pillar of the government’s secret spying program.

Prior to the law’s passage, the nation’s spy agencies, such as the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, didn’t need any court approval to spy on foreigners so long as the wiretaps were outside the United States. Now those agencies are free to order services like Skype, cell phone companies and even search engines to comply with secret spy orders to create back doors in domestic communication networks for the intelligence community. While it’s unclear whether the wiretapping can be used for domestic purposes, the law only requires that the programs that give rise to such orders have a “significant purpose” of foreign intelligence gathering.

One aspect of the law that is chilling to all true Patriots, but not to the fake conservatives is that it:

Forces Communication Service providers to comply secretly, though they can challenge the orders to the secret Foreign Intelligence Court. Individuals or companies given such orders will be paid for their cooperation and cannot be sued for complying.

In short, the law gives the administration the power to order the nation’s communication service providers–which range from Gmail, AOL IM, Twitter, Skype, traditional phone companies, ISPs, internet backbone providers, Federal Express, and social networks–to create permanent spying outposts for the federal government.

These outposts need only to have a “significant” purpose of spying on foreigners, would be nearly immune to challenge by lawsuit, and have no court supervision over their extent or implementation. Abuses of the outposts will be monitored only by the Justice Department, which has already been found to have underreported abuses of other surveillance powers to Congress.

In related international news, Zimbabwe’s repressive dictator Robert Mugabe also won passage of a law allowing the government to turn that nation’s communication infrastructure into a gigantic, secret microphone. [1]

[1] Singel, Ryan. “Analysis: New Law Gives Government Six Months to Turn Internet and Phone Systems into Permanent Spying Architecture.” 8.06.2007.