WASHINGTON – A special court that routinely has approved eavesdropping operations has put new restrictions on the ability of U.S. spy agencies to intercept e-mails and telephone calls of suspected terrorists overseas, officials said Wednesday.
The previously undisclosed ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has prompted concern among senior intelligence officials and lawmakers that the efforts by U.S. spy agencies to track terrorism suspects could be impaired at a time when analysts have warned that the United States is under a heightened risk of attack.
It also has triggered a push in Congress this week to pass temporary legislation that would protect parts of an eavesdropping program launched by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In statements this week, congressional leaders have alluded to the recent decision by the court, which was created almost three decades ago as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a television interview Tuesday: “There’s been a ruling, over the last four or five months, that prohibits the ability of our intelligence services and our counterintelligence people from listening in to two terrorists in other parts of the world where the communication could come through the United States.”
Boehner would not elaborate, but U.S. intelligence and congressional officials familiar with the matter said he was referring to the FISA court ruling.
Boehner’s remarks suggest that the ruling imposed new restrictions on the National Security Agency’s ability to intercept communications that are between individuals overseas but that “transit” U.S. data networks operated by Internet service providers and telecommunications companies.
But other officials said the effect of the ruling was broader than that, affecting cases “where one end is foreign and you don’t know where the other is” – meaning that it imposed a new requirement for warrants even when it is unclear whether communications are crossing the United States or involve an individual in the United States.
Meanwhile, a fierce debate has emerged on Capitol Hill over how to update FISA, a 1978 law that requires the government to gain the approval of a special court before monitoring communications of U.S. persons.
This week, unable to agree on a broader overhaul, the Bush administration and congressional leaders have turned instead to passing temporary legislation designed to address problems created by the recent court ruling. Even so, they remain at odds over the FISA court’s role.