Bush Seeks to Redraw Domestic Spying Act

President Bush has a new version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act. Ryan Singel, a Wired.com blogger, makes a bid for your attention.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

President Bush wants Congress to pass a new version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA, which contains some post-9/11 provisions allowing warrantless wiretapping of suspected terrorists and immunity for telecom companies from lawsuits helping the government to do that - eavesdropping.

The current bill is set to expire by this weekend.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Congress has had over six months to discuss and deliberate. Time for debate is over. I will not accept any temporary extension.

STEWART: That's the president. Now, the Senate has a version of the bill that Mr. Bush likes. The House has its own version without that immunity part and, well, congressmen wanted three more weeks to discuss it but that isn't going to happen. Not enough votes to extend the discussion. Are you still with me? Hello out there? No? Okay. Jacob, hit the music.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Sounds like time for another edition of BPP's Make Me Care where we talk about news that's important but, you know. Up for the challenge Ryan Singel, a wire.com blogger who is following the FISA story. Hi, Ryan.

Mr. RYAN SINGEL (Blogger): Hey, thanks for having me on.

STEWART: Sure. Before we get to the festivities, let me ask you one question. Now, this proposed bill still allows eavesdropping on enemy targets without a court order. Other than immunity for telecom companies, what's new about the bill?

Mr. SINGEL: The House version differs from the Senate version in how the government is allowed to wiretap inside the United State without getting court approval. The House bill puts much sharper limits on what the U.S.'s spies can do inside America, as opposed to the Senate version which largely gives the government a free hand to spy inside the United States when they are trying to track foreign intelligence.

STEWART: Okay, Ryan. Here are the ground rules. We're putting 60 seconds on the make me care clock. When you hear that loud ticking, you have only 10 seconds left to make your case. You'll hear a times up bell. Going for the win, Ryan. When it comes to everyday non-terrorism supporting Americans, why should we care about whether or not Congress extends the U.S. government's ability to wiretap suspected terrorists without a warrant from the FISA court? Make Me Care, go.

(Soundbite of clock ticking)

Mr. SINGEL: There are two reasons - two important things in this bill that Americans should care about. First, the Senate bill will give the government an ability to wiretap inside the United States without warrant in a way that would let them basically get every email that goes to or from a foreigner.

Essentially, that is the architecture that looks like a police state. It would be - even if the government is just going after terrorists, it still - kind of you're relying on the good will of men rather than laws to protect you.

Secondly, amnesty. The telecoms, their job is to - your phone company's job is to carry your phone call from one place to another. Their job is not to be an extension of the federal government. And essentially, they violated 30 years of federal law in secret for five years after 9/11. And...

(Soundbite of bell ring)

STEWART: All right. Let's finish the and. Go for it.

Mr. SINGEL: And the folks who want to have their day in court should have their day in court.

STEWART: There are 40 such civil lawsuits that is filed against AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Nextel - for violating privacy rights. I mean, if those suits go forward, would the government have to disclose details of the surveillance programs?

Mr. SINGEL: The judge that's handling it, who is a judge that was appointed by our current president's father, has been very good at finding a way to let the lawsuits continue without revealing secrets from the government. And so far, the courts have been innovative but not making the government reveal here's exactly how we wiretap.

STEWART: All right. So you've said one of the reasons we should care is because of the telecoms giving information and as you said violating a certain - a 30-year-old law. The second you mentioned was email. That's what perked up my ears. So what goes on with my email if I decide to email somebody, a friend in Abu Dhabi?

Mr. SINGEL: Yeah. Essentially, the Senate version of the bill would let, you know, the government spies go to, lets say, Google and say we want to see every email that involves a foreigner. So that would be illegal. And even if that you are on the other end of that email that would be fine for the government to get. And to worry something about that for, you know, everyday Americans is, you know, you're going to end up - your communications is going to get stuck some place and, you know. You could if the person you email, for some reason --or the Web sites you look, if that information somehow is two steps away from a bad guy, you know, maybe you emailed someone who - for business who on the side their job is, you know, they decide they want to give money to a Palestinian organization and that organization supports terrorism, then you're just two steps away. And maybe the next time you fly through the airport, you try to fly overseas, your name pops up on the terrorist watch list.

STEWART: Now, what happens...

Mr. SINGEL: That's the kind of a Kafkaesque scenario.

STEWART: Got you. What happens if the temporary surveillance law expires this weekend?

Mr. SINGEL: Essentially, nothing. The old framework which required - the same as the 30-year-old framework which requires the government to get a court order when they want to spy inside of the United States, that's still in effect. What expires is this temporary law from the summer which gave the administration wide powers to wiretap inside of the United States whatever, you know, without having specific targets in mind. But anything they started this summer, that continues on for another year.

STEWART: Ryan Singel is a blogger for Wired.com. Hey, Ryan, thanks for making us care.

Mr. SINGEL: Hey, thanks for having me on.

STEWART: What to you think, Rachel? Did you dive in there? Were you (unintelligible)? Did you care?

MARTIN: I learned some things. I learned some things.

STEWART: The email thing...

MARTIN: The email thing gets me. Like not that I am two steps away from bad guys, but you never know.

STEWART: But you never know.

MARTIN: I don't know. That's a little freaky. Hey, stay with us. Why? Because we're going to have this really interesting interview about this play and book and movement really. It's called "Mortified," and it's about exposing teenage love lives. There's all kind of stuff in there. Some of them is mortifying, some of it's sweet.

Stay with us. This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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