House approves NSA spy program

But Senate action on bill unlikely before elections

September 29, 2006|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- A sweeping surveillance measure that would legalize the National Security Agency's warrantless spying program passed the House yesterday with solid support from Republicans.

The measure, approved by a 232-191 margin, would allow the government to "move just as fast as the terrorists who want to kill us while we also protect civil liberties," said its chief proponent, Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico.

Prospects for the measure's becoming law this year, however, are uncertain. The Senate is not expected to act until after Election Day, if at all, though there remained a slim chance that Senate leaders could schedule a vote before Congress leaves town.

In an emotional appeal, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, warned that if Congress members rejected the bill, they would have "blood on our hands" in the event of a terrorist attack.

Others like Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, called the House measure a "common sense reform."

Opponents argued that the bill was not necessary to make the country safer and would hand unchecked power to the president. "This House is voting to fix something that is not broken," said California Rep. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

President Bush has called the measure a crucial terrorist-hunting tool, and the NSA program will continue to operate, regardless of what Congress does. But without new legal authorization, the program could be more vulnerable to dozens of legal challenges that have been filed around the country.

A largely Democratic-led effort, to place more limits on the president's domestic surveillance power than those in the House-approved measure, failed.

All of the Maryland House delegation's Republicans voted for the bill, and all of the state's Democrats opposed it.

Final approval of a new surveillance law, whose prospects appeared bright earlier this week, have become mired in an intraparty battle among House and Senate Republicans over the details. The White House prefers the Senate version, which would grant the president greater latitude to spy without notifying Congress or the courts.

The new legislation is designed to revise a 1978 law that created a secret court that issues warrants for eavesdropping in the United States. It would also legalize the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program, which monitors calls into and out of the United States by people suspected to be linked to al-Qaida.

But the House version would place greater restrictions on the program. It would require the government to get a warrant to spy on people in the United States suspected of having terrorist ties.

However, the president could act without court approval if he certifies that the country is "in the wake of a terrorist attack" or armed conflict, or facing an "imminent attack." The president would have 60 days to obtain a warrant, but he would be able to continue warrantless spying if he certifies and describes to Congress his reason for doing so on national security grounds.

The Senate version would legalize the NSA program by stating that the president does not always need to obtain a warrant for surveillance. Also, it would permit the president to submit the program to the secret court to review its constitutionality.

Critics of the proposals say the differences between the two versions matter little in practice.

"Essentially, what they do is the same thing, which is to legalize these activities," said Caroline Frederickson of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Republicans in the House have played down differences with the Senate but offered no timetable for resolving them.

Instead, House Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio accused Democrats of blocking an effort to give the president the instruments he needs to fight terrorists.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California responded that for "the Republicans to say the Democrats don't want you to be able to listen in on terrorists is simply not true."

Senate Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has said he hopes a compromise could be worked out in Congress' post-election session. But a House leadership aide cautioned that behind-the-scenes negotiations this week indicate the prospects for a deal are dim.

One unpredictable element in the maneuvering is the courts. Lawmakers were reminded of that yesterday when a Detroit judge ruled in a lawsuit that she would allow the NSA program to continue for only one more week. Her ruling was not expected to halt the program, because an appeals court is expected to weigh in before the end of next week, said Fredrickson.

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