Surveillance Law: What's in It? President Bush signed legislation Sunday that lets the government eavesdrop without a warrant on communications between Americans and people reasonably believed to be outside the United States.
NPR logo

Surveillance Law: What's in It?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Surveillance Law: What's in It?


Surveillance Law: What's in It?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Andrea Seabrook.

It may seem like a normal day, but for America's spy agencies, today is not normal.

President Bush signed into law yesterday an updated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. The new law gives the administration greater powers to eavesdrop on communications coming through the United States, including those of Americans.

Siobhan Gorman, intelligence correspondent at The Baltimore Sun, helped us understand the fine print of this law.

NORRIS: It pretty broadly increases the spying powers of - particularly the National Security Agency but others who also do what's called signals intelligence or eavesdropping. And keep in mind that this isn't just telephone communications. This is e-mail, anything that goes over the Internet, financial transactions, faxes, all kinds of things. If the spy agencies are focused on someone who is outside the United States but they are communicating somehow to or through people in the United States, those communications are fair game. They do not need to get a search warrant.

SEABROOK: Is there a limit to how this information can be used by the spy agencies?

NORRIS: No. So long as it's clear that the information pertains to a foreign intelligence investigation. If they collect information that isn't really part of the investigation and it pertains to an American citizen or someone in the United States, they are required by law to delete that information. But it's not clear how it is determined what is actually part of the investigation. And so some critics of this new law are concerned that most things, regardless of how directly connected they are to the investigation, will be considered part of this new basket of information.

SEABROOK: Apparently, the law also has some small provision that has to do with physical searches, actually, you know, spy agencies actually searching in people's homes or property?

NORRIS: Well, I was actually speaking with a congressional aide yesterday about this, trying to get a sense of what the implications are, because anytime you have a bill that changes definitions of terms, it can have ramifications that may even be beyond the intent of the people who were writing it. But this congressional aide who I was speaking with yesterday did say that it may be possible that physical searches inside the United States in some circumstances will no longer require a court warrant.

SEABROOK: Now, I know that the Senate was a little hesitant to give these powers directly to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. They ended up writing the bill so that it went to both Gonzales and the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell. What powers do they share?

NORRIS: They share the power to determine that a particular intelligence operation can commence without a warrant. They have some new powers to compel telecommunications companies to cooperate with the government. But remember, I mean, this is a law. It's not specific to this administration. Although it will sunset in six months and so we're going to have continued debate, probably, for the next six months over these issues. But presumably, if this law stuck after six months, it would certainly live beyond the incumbents of those offices.

SEABROOK: And what exactly is it that the Democrats don't like about this bill?

NORRIS: What they don't like is that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is pretty far removed in terms of the role that it plays in evaluating whether or not spy operations are appropriate, consistent with the law. And what the Democrats wanted to do was make sure that a judge played more of a role whenever it was going to touch on American communications and, ultimately, they did not win the day on that.

SEABROOK: Because essentially giving the power to the Director of National Intelligence and the attorney general is to make the executive branch put a check on itself, which I guess is the question whether that works.

NORRIS: Yeah, the question is whether or not you need a separate branch of government to provide a sufficient check. And I think the administration was saying, well, if we have two people coming from different sides of the executive branch, that will expedite things while still providing some sort of additional check. Democrats didn't necessarily feel that that was a sufficient check.

SEABROOK: So, this six-month stopgap, I guess, both sides will be hammering for the next six months to get the real law to reflect their own views.

NORRIS: I would think so, certainly. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already called on lawmakers in the appropriate committees to take this up right after they get back from their August recess. So, I have a feeling that the Democrats are going to be pressing pretty hard on this come the fall.

SEABROOK: Siobhan Gorman, intelligence correspondent at The Baltimore Sun. Thank you so much for coming in.

NORRIS: Great to be with you.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.