MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The Bush administration is calling for changes in the law that governs how surveillance is conducted inside the United States. The White House says it wants the National Security Agency and other spy agencies to be able to keep up with the changing technology.
NPR's Martin Kaste reports that some of the proposed provisions are drawing strong objections from privacy advocates.
MARTIN KASTE: The administration says it wants to make the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, more technology neutral. That is, it wants to make sure spy agencies can use new forms of surveillance that aren't specifically foreseen in the law.
John Schmidt was associate attorney general in the Clinton administration, but he's now a defender of President Bush's surveillance policies, and he thinks modernization is a good idea.
Mr. JOHN SCHMIDT (Former Associate Attorney General): It would seem to me, it would kind of free up the NSA and people working with them to be creative, because you know, we really want them to come up with new ways to do this, ways that, you know, you and I haven't thought about and won't think about. And therefore the kind of people who are engaged in planning of terrorist attacks in the United States also won't know about.
KASTE: But Mike German of the American Civil Liberties Union points out that the bill would give the executive branch more leeway to spy on private electronic communications without court order, without even the after-the-fact court orders that are allowed by FISA already.
Mr. MIKE GERMAN (American Civil Liberties Union): You know, anybody who knows that somebody's going to be looking at what they do will have a tendency to be more careful in how they do it.
KASTE: The ACLU and other privacy groups object to another proposed change, which would offer legal cover to anybody or any company that cooperates with government spying.
Several major phone companies have been sued for sharing their customers' phone records with the government, and suits from around the country are now being rolled into a massive case in a federal court in San Francisco.
But if the Bush administration's change is passed, the companies would get immunity, retroactive to September 11th, 2001.
Mr. LEE TIEN (Senior Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): Certainly the whole point of this is to take us out.
KASTE: Lee Tien is a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing AT&T over domestic surveillance. He says the administration's proposed changes would make all surveillance lawsuits harder, both against the government and against telecom companies.
Mr. TIEN: You would have something in writing from Congress passed by the president that says you're out of here.
KASTE: The office of the director of National Intelligence declined to be interviewed on the proposed changes, because the director, Mike McConnell, wants to brief Congress first. But in a written statement, the office says immunity for telecoms is needed to protect those carriers when they do comply with lawful requests under FISA.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.