View Full Version : Senate Endorses Expanded Wiretap Powers

08-04-2007, 04:37 PM
Senate endorses expanded wiretap powers


Published: Friday August 3, 2007

The US Senate Friday voted to extend the power of US intelligence agents to eavesdrop on terror suspects, in a victory for the White House after a tense showdown with congressional Democrats.

Democratic leaders balked at White House terms for a deal, but the Senate went ahead and passed a Republican bill which reflected President George W. Bush's requests.

The controversy centered on a program designed to listen in on telephone and email conversations mainly outside the United States, but routed through US-based communications firms.

Senators voted to permit intelligence officers to listen in to such conversations without obtaining prior approval from a special court.

The House of Representatives voted against a Democratic party alternative, but could vote on the version passed in the Senate, which provides rules which expire within six months, in the next few days.

"My Republican colleagues chose to rubberstamp a flawed administration proposal," said Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, accusing the White House of misusing anti-terror powers in the past.

But White House deputy spokesman Tony Fratto said the bill would give US spy agencies the tools they needed to fight terrorism.

"It is urgent that this legislation become law as quickly as possible, so we encourage the House of Representatives to swiftly consider and pass this bill."

Democrats were angry because they claimed the Republican approach would allow Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, target of their demands for perjury and impeachment proceedings, to authorize wide-ranging surveillance.

US intelligence czar Mike McConnell however rejected the Democratic alternatives, saying they contained too much "uncertainty.

"I must have certainty in order to protect the nation from attacks that are being planned today to inflict mass casualties on the United States," he said.

The White House wants Congress to endorse eavesdropping on conversations between suspected terrorists abroad without prior court approval.

Democratic proposals allow that, but say individual warrants should be required before agents can listen in on a conversation involving one party in the United States, in a bid to protect civil liberties.

The White House says it is unreasonable to force agents to get the court to agree ahead of time to listen to conversations between a target abroad who makes frequent calls to a contact who happens to be on US soil.

Bush earlier urged Democrats to close the "intelligence gap" in US law, which he said threatened the government's ability to keep Americans safe, and urged them not to start a summer break before passing the bill.

"I'm going to ask Congress to stay in session until they pass a bill that will give our intelligence community the tools they need to protect the United States."

The rush to change US law came after a US federal judge earlier this year secretly ruled a key element of the electronic telephone wiretapping program was illegal.

The ruling held that the Bush administration had overstepped its authority in trying to eavesdrop on communications between two locations abroad that are passed through routing stations in US territory.

Republican Senator Christopher Bond, who sponsored the Senate version, warned that failure to act promptly could endanger US security.

"The important thing is that we move now, before we leave for vacation, to make sure that the United States intelligence agency is not deaf for the entire month of August when the threat may be gaining significant grounds," he said.

After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop, without a court warrant, on telephone calls and emails between people inside the United States and suspected terrorists abroad.

The administration put the warrantless domestic eavesdropping program under the supervision of the secret court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in January after months of criticism from civil liberties groups.