Senate Votes To Expand Warrantless Surveillance
Saturday, August 4, 2007
The Senate bowed to White House pressure last night and passed a Republican plan for overhauling the federal government's terrorist surveillance laws, approving changes that would temporarily give U.S. spy agencies expanded power to eavesdrop on foreign suspects without a court order.
The 60 to 28 vote, which was quickly denounced by civil rights and privacy advocates, came after Democrats in the House failed to win support for more modest changes that would have required closer court supervision of government surveillance. Earlier in the day, President Bush threatened to hold Congress in session into its scheduled summer recess if it did not approve the changes he wanted.
The legislation, which is expected to go before the House today, would expand the government's authority to intercept without a court order the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States who are communicating with people overseas.
As currently written, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act already gives U.S. spies broad leeway to monitor the communications of foreign terrorism suspects, but the 30-year-old statute requires a warrant to monitor calls intercepted in the United States, regardless of where the calls begin or end.
At the White House, where officials had voiced concern about that requirement, a spokesman praised the Senate vote and called on House leaders to quickly follow suit. The legislation will "give our intelligence professionals the essential tools they need to protect our nation," spokesman Tony Fratto said.
Democratic leaders expressed disappointment about the result, but they pointed to language that would require lawmakers to reconsider the key provisions in six months.
"My Republican colleagues chose to rubber-stamp a flawed administration proposal that fails to provide the accountability needed in the light of the administration's past mismanagement of key tools in the war on terror," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Sixteen Democrats and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) joined all 43 Republicans in supporting the measure, which is nearly identical to a proposal prepared by the Bush administration. "We're at war. The enemy wants to attack us," Lieberman said during the Senate debate. "This is not the time to strive for legislative perfection."
Privacy advocates accused the Democrats of selling out and charged that this bill gives the government more authority than it had under a controversial warrantless wiretapping program begun in secret after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Under that program, the government could conduct surveillance without judicial oversight only if it had a reason to believe that one party to the call was a member of or affiliated with al-Qaeda or a related terrorist organization. This bill drops that condition, they noted.
Democrats "have a Pavlovian reaction: Whenever the president says the word 'terrorism,' they roll over and play dead," said Caroline Fredrickson, Washington legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, predicted that the bill's approval would lead to the monitoring of ordinary Americans by the National Security Agency, which conducts most of the government's electronic surveillance. "If this bill becomes law, Americans who communicate with a person abroad can count on one thing: The NSA may be listening," he said.
Congressional Democrats and the White House clashed throughout the day not only over the scope of the changes in the law but also over whether the other side was bargaining in good faith. Democrats said they were convinced that their proposal met key the demands of Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) quoted him as saying that the bill "significantly enhances America's security."