House Ponders Wiretap Bill
By CHARLES BABINGTON 08.04.07, 4:40 PM ET
The House on Saturday delayed action on a Senate-passed bill to expand the government's powers to eavesdrop, without warrants, on Americans' communications with foreigners who are not necessarily terrorist suspects.
Lawmakers in both parties said they expected the measure to pass at some point - perhaps late Saturday or early Sunday - but only after the House deals with other matters, including an energy package.
President Bush and his Republican allies said the measure is needed to speed the National Security Agency's ability to intercept phone calls, e-mails and other communications between Americans and potentially hostile foreigners. Civil liberties groups and many Democrats said it goes too far, enabling the government to wiretap U.S. residents with insufficient oversight from courts or Congress.
Bush called for prompt passage of the measure Saturday, saying, "Protecting America is our most solemn obligation."
The bill would update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA. It would allow the government to intercept, without warrants, communications between a U.S. resident and a foreign party suspected of involvement in "foreign intelligence" matters. It would drop existing language requiring that the foreigner be suspected more specifically of connections to terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.
The bill also would clarify that the government can intercept foreigner-to-foreigner communications that pass through U.S. lines or switches. The government long has had the power to intercept purely foreign communications.
If a U.S. resident is the chief target of surveillance of his or her communications with a foreigner, the government would have to obtain a warrant from the special FISA court.
Bush and his allies demanded that Congress approve the FISA changes before starting its August recess. "Al-Qaida is not going on vacation this month," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Congressional Democrats won a few concessions before the Senate passed the bill late Friday. New wiretaps would have to be approved by the director of national intelligence and the attorney general, not just the attorney general. Congress has battled with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on several issues, and some Democrats have accused him of perjury.
The new law would expire in six months unless Congress renewed it. The administration wanted the changes to be permanent.
Many congressional Democrats wanted tighter restrictions on NSA surveillance, but yielded in the face of Bush's veto threats and the impending August break.
The administration began pressing for changes to the law after a recent ruling by the FISA court. That decision barred the government from eavesdropping on foreign suspects whose messages were being routed through U.S. communications carriers, including Internet sites.
The bill is S. 1927.