House Takes Up Domestic Spying Bill

The U.S. House takes up the government's spying program Wednesday, and a partisan battle is expected.

Democrats are sponsoring legislation that gives a secret federal court broader jurisdiction over the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program.

Both sides say national security is at stake.

Former Democratic Congressman Timothy Roemer is on Capitol Hill this week to support the new legislation. Roemer was a member of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.

He said the panel discovered that some U.S. intelligence officers were reluctant to use aggressive surveillance techniques because they were not sure what was legal. Advances in communication technology outpaced the provisions of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

Roemer said the bill before the House would clarify the law.

"This is a step in the right direction to act quickly on foreign targets; to modernize how we can do that when fiber optics may run through the United States; and to try to make sure we balance that strong national security with civil liberties so that the American government isn't collecting on our own people," Roemer said. "As the American people are doing more oversees calls, more e-mail, it's essential they don't become big brother to getting that information on our own people."

Democrats Fear 'Big Brother'

That is the fear some Democrats have with legislation Congress hastily passed this summer under pressure from the Bush administration to close what it called a dangerous gap in intelligence.

It broadened the National Security Agency's ability to eavesdrop on foreign communications without a warrant. That authority expires after the first of the year, so Congress is now working on the new bill.

It would still allow the government to eavesdrop on foreign suspects overseas, but when targeted communications might cross into the United States, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court would come into play. Agents would have to either get individual warrants for targets in the U.S. or have broad permission — called blanket warrants — to capture U.S. communications.

Republicans Say Warrants Impede Intelligence

Republicans say that is a bad idea.

"It forces us to get a court order when we want to listen to what a terrorist has to say," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

Smith said the requirements of the new bill are problematic because intelligence agents do not always know with whom a suspect is talking.

"And that means that every time someone who might be perpetrating a terrorist act makes a phone call, we are now going to have to get a warrant. That is a deterrent to intelligence gathering and trying to stop a terrorist attack," Smith maintained.

Another sticking point for Republicans is that the bill does not give retroactive immunity to telecommunication companies that have been sued for cooperating with the government's warrantless wiretapping program.

"We needed their cooperation," Smith said. "We should be giving thanks, not inviting meaningless lawsuits to be filed against telephone companies."

Republicans will try to add immunity to the bill during Wednesday's debate, but they are not likely to succeed — especially after revelations this week about the extent of the firms' cooperation with the government.

In a letter to House Democrats, the companies said they could not provide details on their cooperation with the government's secret surveillance program.

But Verizon did say it has provided hundreds of customer records to federal authorities without a warrant since 2005.

Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) is one of the lawmakers investigating the program.

"The Bush administration must come clean in order to reestablish trust with American people and with the Congress. Until we get to the bottom of what happened here, I, like many of my colleagues, am reluctant to endorse retroactive immunity," Markey said.

President Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it does not grant immunity to the telecommunications firms. A Senate version of the intelligence bill is expected include immunity.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.