Bush signs expanded wiretap bill

Revision of 1978 law widens communication surveillance

August 06, 2007|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN REPORTER

President Bush signed a bill yesterday expanding the powers of spy agencies to carry out wiretap activities in the United States without a court warrant.

The measure, adopted by Congress in one of its final acts before taking a month off, gives the National Security Agency and other agencies broader authority to monitor phone conversations, e-mail and other private communications that are part of a foreign intelligence investigation.

It was approved by Congress with surprising swiftness, amid warnings from the Bush administration about a new gap in the nation's terrorism defenses and criticism from opponents who called it an erosion of the privacy rights of ordinary Americans.

It revises a 1978 law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which has been amended at least eight times since 2001. The original law requires the government to obtain a warrant from a secret national security court for all surveillance in the United States.

The issue is complicated by the challenges of determining the location of a person sending or receiving e-mail and some types of phone calls.

The change in the law was, in part, a response to the 2005 revelation of a program monitoring conversations without a warrant between foreigners and the United States that were believed to have a connection to al-Qaida. President Bush reluctantly agreed earlier this year to obtain a warrant from the secret court for what Bush now calls the Terrorist Surveillance Program. But the administration had since sought to reduce the role of the court in the process.

Here are some questions and answers about the new eavesdropping law and the debate surrounding its adoption:

What will the NSA and other spy agencies be able to do now that they couldn't do before?

Intelligence agencies will no longer need a warrant to collect communications between the United States and overseas, including the conversations of Americans, so long as the intelligence investigation is directed at a person believed to be outside the U.S. The conversation does not have to be about terrorism, just a matter of foreign intelligence interest.

The administration has said its intent is not to collect information on Americans. But critics say intelligence agencies are only required to delete Americans' private information from their records if it is deemed not relevant to the investigation.

The attorney general and the director of national intelligence have four months to submit to the secret national security court guidelines for determining what surveillance can take place without a warrant. The court then has six months to approve those procedures and cannot reject them unless it finds that the government has made a clear error in drawing them up, a legal standard critics say will make it nearly impossible for the executive branch to be denied. Democrats had proposed requiring that the court evaluate the guidelines within 45 days and have a greater role in evaluating the procedures. A little-noticed provision in the new law also suggests that warrantless physical searches of homes and businesses inside the United States may be allowed if the investigation concerns a foreign target of an intelligence investigation, a congressional aide said.

What was the urgency about passing this law before Congress took its August break?

The urgency was twofold. Three weeks ago, intelligence officials told lawmakers they were unable to obtain a "significant portion of what we should be getting" because of a judge's ruling in recent months that limited their ability to intercept conversations between foreigners that were routed through the United States - where a lot of computer equipment that handles Internet communications is located. An intelligence official familiar with the matter said the gap had to do with the time involved in processing a warrant. The disclosure of this intelligence gap coincided with a new intelligence report warning of a heightened terrorist threat to the United States. With Congress heading for its month-long summer recess, lawmakers agreed that a short-term fix was needed.

Democrats felt pressured to address the gap before they left town and were unable to pass a measure requiring more court oversight, as many wanted. So many accepted a broader surveillance measure backed by the White House. This law will only be in effect for the next six months.

Plugging a security gap seems to make sense. What is it about the new law that opponents don't like?

The White House and congressional Democrats agreed on the need to close the gap, but differed on how to do it. Both sides said the law should be clarified to ensure that conversations between foreigners could be monitored without a warrant.

The clash arose on the question of warrantless surveillance of conversations between foreigners and people inside the United States. The administration said that it needed quick access to such conversations, and obtaining a warrant would delay intelligence collection.

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