WASHINGTON – The House voted late Thursday to rewrite the nation’s domestic wiretap laws, giving President Bush new power to monitor the e-mail and phone records of U.S. citizens during terrorism investigations without having to obtain court approval.
But lawmakers were unlikely to deliver final legislation to the White House before leaving this weekend for the election campaign, a setback for the administration, which has made national security a pillar of its strategy to maintain Republican control of Congress.
The House measure would endorse the once-secret program Bush launched after Sept. 11, authorizing the National Security Agency to monitor communication between terrorism suspects and people in the U.S. without first obtaining warrants. It would also set new rules for warrantless surveillance during emergencies and give Congress a bigger role in monitoring the surveillance.
The measure was approved, 232-191, with 18 Democrats supporting it. Thirteen Republicans opposed the bill.
The action came as the Senate was immersed in approving other legislation considered a priority by Bush: setting procedures for trials of military detainees and interrogating terrorism suspects.
Some lawmakers said the Senate could still take up the issue in a lame-duck session after the Nov. 7 election. Failing that, Bush would be deprived of congressional backing for what he has called one of the administration’s most important anti-terrorism programs.
The House and Senate bills generally expand executive power to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance, but they differ in key respects.
Both bills would change the definition of electronic surveillance so that in most cases warrants would have to be obtained only if the communication occurred within the U.S. or if a U.S. person was being intentionally targeted. If the target is outside the U.S. – as Bush has described his NSA program – then court review would not be required.
That would be a big change from current law, which requires a court order to intercept calls or e-mails into or out of the U.S.
Critics of the proposals said the bills would greatly expand surveillance of U.S. citizens without court approval.
“They would allow more warrantless surveillance of Americans than has ever before been approved by statute in U.S. history,” said Lisa Graves, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The revisions would alter the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which created a secret court to handle Justice Department requests for electronic surveillance in terrorism and espionage cases. Bush acknowledged that he had bypassed the court when he ordered the NSA program, saying that he had the power under the Constitution to ignore the intelligence statute.
Republicans said Thursday the act needed updating to reflect the new technologies that terrorists are using. They sought to portray critics as putting the country at risk by refusing to give the administration adequate tools to fight the war on terrorism.
“This bill is reasonable,” said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., its sponsor. “We are trying to modernize the electronic surveillance act of this country so we are allowing our intelligence agencies to collect the intelligence to keep us safe while also putting in place rules of the road to protect civil liberties.”
Democrats said the legislation abridged those civil liberties and invaded the privacy rights of ordinary citizens to be free of unreasonable searches without a court order.
“The president wants to go on a fishing expedition,” said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., “but he doesn’t want to get a fishing license.”
The GOP leadership successfully blocked consideration of amendments to the legislation.
A bipartisan group of House members including Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., had proposed to increase the number of judges hearing wiretap cases and give the administration more time to seek warrants in emergencies.
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