Proposed Surveillance Powers Stall FISA Update The Bush administration wants to allow the attorney general to order secret surveillance of foreign terrorism suspects without going through the FISA court. But Democrats are reluctant to give such power to any attorney general, let alone the incumbent.
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Proposed Surveillance Powers Stall FISA Update

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Proposed Surveillance Powers Stall FISA Update

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Proposed Surveillance Powers Stall FISA Update

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Now, President Bush told lawmakers today that he wants them to revise the law that governs foreign surveillance. The president wants the attorney general to be able to authorize such spying rather than a special court setup by Congress almost 30 years ago, we just heard about that from Andrea Seabrook. Congressional Democrats are insisting that the FISA court should continue to make the calls.

NPR's David Welna has that story.

DAVID WELNA: It's been nearly four months since Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell asked Congress to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. Exactly why remains a classified matter. But for one thing, McConnell says the FISA courts that objected earlier this year to President Bush's warrantless spying program, are now being overwhelmed with requests for permission to carry out that surveillance. Now, with Congress about to leave town, President Bush and his Republican congressional allies are saying the nation is at risk if the FISA law is not revised.

Appearing with DNI McConnell at the FBI's Washington headquarters this morning, Mr. Bush said he had only one question for him.

GEORGE W: Does this legislation give you what you need to prevent an attack on the country? Is this what you need to do your job, Mr. DNI? That's the question I want to ask. And if the answer is yes, I'll sign the bill, and if the answer is no, I'm going to veto the bill. And so far, the Democrats in Congress have not drafted the bill I could sign.

WELNA: As he stood before a backdrop today at the Capitol emblazoned with the words, Securing America's Future, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell - no relation to the intelligence director - insisted that there's nothing at all political about the last minute push to revise the FISA law.

MITCH MCCONNELL: The DNI is not in politics, he's a career military men. His job is to protect us. It's time for the political games to stop.

WELNA: But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a subsequent news briefing said Democrats thought DNI McConnell was in fact on board with their proposed FISA fix when they spoke with him yesterday.

HARRY REID: In fact, Majority Leader Hoyer asked him if what we have said will do, will that help you significantly? And he said yes without any question. So my only question I raise at this time is I have lost the little confidence in his independence.

WELNA: Reid added that it appears the intelligence director got some phone calls from the White House and the vice president's office despite the White House's insistence that Attorney General Gonzales be given power to authorize foreign surveillance. Reid said he and his fellow Democrats have what he called a low level of trust in Gonzales. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was even more categorical.

NANCY PELOSI: Let me be clear. With his testimony to Congress, his performance as attorney general, and his account, if nothing else, of the March 2004 meeting that we had in the situation room in the White House, I think completely discredits him from being the arbiter of FISA. Having said that, I don't care who the attorney general is - the attorney general under Democratic president or Republican president. It's not appropriate that the same branch of government have all of that power.

WELNA: And so the standoff continues. Majority Leader Reid was asked today about the president's demand this morning that Congress not disband until it passes a FISA revision that's to his liking.

REID: Here's my answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WELNA: Reid reached into his pocket and pulled out an editorial from today's New York Times titled "Stampeding Congress Again." It was a call for cooler heads to prevail in the rush for new surveillance roles.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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