House Panels Retool Eavesdropping Legislation

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Congress is heading for a showdown with President Bush over the government's warrantless wiretapping program.

House Democrats have crafted legislation that would put additional curbs on the National Security Agency's intelligence gathering. Republicans say the bill would give unprecedented constitutional protections to terrorists.

The new bill would still allow U.S. agents to listen in on conversations overseas involving foreign suspects, as current law allows. It also broadened the National Security Agency's ability to eavesdrop on foreign communications without a warrant.

But in cases where the communications involve someone in the United States or an American citizen, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would have jurisdiction, said House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Sylvester Reyes (D-TX).

"We're putting the FISA court back in the role of making sure that American civil rights are protected," Reyes said.

The Restore Act

Reyes and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sponsored the Restore Act; their respective committees approved the bill Wednesday.

President Bush called the new bill a step backward from the temporary Protect America Act.

"Since this important measure took effect, our intelligence professionals have been able to gather critical information that would have been missed without this authority. And keeping this authority is essential to keeping America safe," Bush said.

Warrants and Privacy

The partisan lines were stark in Wednesday's Judiciary Committee hearing.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) was especially critical of the new bill.

New York Democrat Rep. Jerrold Nadler took exception to the characterization.

"Everybody recognizes the awfulness of what happened in my district on Sept. 11," Nadler said. "Everyone wants to have surveillance and wiretapping and spying on terrorists and suspected terrorists. The question is, under what protections of American liberty will we conduct the necessary surveillance and the necessary wiretapping and the necessary spying?"

Civil libertarians said the bill does not provide enough privacy protections.

Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union said she is troubled by a provision that would allow the government use broad-blanket warrants to eavesdrop on foreign targets even when targets are communicating with Americans. A person might not be a target but will still be part of the government's dragnet, Fredrickson said.

"For those people there should be a warrant. This administration should have to go and show that they have some individualized suspicion that the people whose conversations they're listening to on American soil, that their privacy is being invaded for a national security reason," Fredrickson said.

Some Democrats think the House leadership compromised for fear of being labeled soft on terrorists.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) has introduced an alternative that would require warrants any time American communications are involved.

The Bush administration wants the new bill to grant immunity to the telecommunication firms that have been sued for cooperating with the warrantless wiretaps. Democratic leaders say they won't consider that until they get White House documents detailing the program.

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