By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006
The federal government would have to obtain permission from a secret court to continue a controversial form of surveillance, which the National Security Agency now conducts without warrants, under a bill being proposed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Specter's proposal would bring the four-year-old NSA program under the authority of the court created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The act created a mechanism for obtaining warrants to wiretap domestic suspects. But President Bush, shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on communications without such warrants. The program was revealed in news reports two months ago.
Specter's plan could put him at odds with the administration, which has praised a rival proposal that would exempt the NSA program from the surveillance law. Specter's proposal would also require the administration to give a handful of lawmakers more information about the program than they now receive, such as the number of communications intercepted and a summary of the results.
The draft version of Specter's bill, which is circulating in intelligence and legal circles, would require the attorney general to seek the FISA court's approval for each planned NSA intercept under the program. Bush has said the agency monitors phone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and people abroad when any of them is thought to have possible terrorist ties.
Specter's bill would require the attorney general to give the secret court "a statement of the facts and circumstances" causing the Justice Department to believe "that at least one of the participants in the communications to be intercepted . . . will be the foreign power or agent of a foreign power specified in [the law], or a person who has had communication with the foreign power or agent." The attorney general would have to provide "a detailed description of the nature of the information sought" and "an estimate of the number of communications to be intercepted . . . during the requested authorization period."
The draft says the surveillance program's goal is "to gather foreign intelligence information or to protect against international terrorism."
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil rights group, said the bill's language is alarmingly broad. "It's not limited to al-Qaeda or even terrorism," she said. Those who communicate with "foreign powers" could include a vast array of innocent people, Martin said.
Specter spokesman Bill Reynolds said he had not read the proposed bill and had no comment.