Wiretap Bill Moves Closer to Passage

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Last-minute changes to legislation authorizing the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program have won the support of three balking Senate Republicans, improving the chances that a bill expanding the Bush administration's surveillance authority will pass Congress this week.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill this month that would allow, but not require, the administration to submit its warrantless wiretapping program to a secret national security court for constitutional review. But three Republicans who last year helped delay the renewal of the USA Patriot Act -- Sens. Larry E. Craig (Idaho), John E. Sununu (N.H.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) -- combined forces again to express strong misgivings about the bill's implications for civil liberties.

The senators announced yesterday that those concerns had been met by three changes to the bill, although critics said the changes would not have the impact that the lawmakers claimed.

The first change removes explicit language referring to the president's inherent "constitutional authority" to pursue national security programs. According to the lawmakers, a second major change would clarify that a decision by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court upholding the warrantless surveillance program's legality would not give blanket authorization for the president to pursue wiretaps without court approval.

The lawmakers say a third change is aimed at ensuring that warrantless surveillance of an agent of a foreign power does not include an American. Under the change, the lawmakers said, the administration would be expected to obtain a warrant if the attorney general cannot certify a "reasonable expectation" that the warrantless surveillance will not involve a U.S. citizen.

"We believe the changes we secured will not only uphold . . . vital individual rights but will also ensure that Congress retains its authority to regulate and provide oversight throughout the surveillance process," the three senators said.

But civil libertarians and surveillance experts say the changes are less significant than the senators believe. Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said the legislation still amounts to a sweeping rewrite of federal law to allow the president to conduct "massive warrantless surveillance of Americans" with no court oversight.

Also yesterday, former FBI and CIA director William H. Webster, former FBI director William Sessions, and 12 other former national security officials released a statement opposing the latest Senate proposal, saying it would return surveillance law to "murky waters."

Quick passage of the bill will still be difficult. Republican leaders were struggling yesterday to win the blessing of Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), the author of competing legislation in the House. If Wilson and other House Republicans agree, the House and Senate may bring up identical bills by week's end in hopes of sending legislation to the president before the November elections.

If the two chambers pass different bills, there will be no time to broker a compromise and pass it through the House and Senate again before Congress recesses Friday.

A White House spokeswoman said the administration is pleased with the agreement.

Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

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