House Approves Wiretap Measure
Sunday, August 5, 2007
The Democratic-controlled House last night approved and sent to President Bush for his signature legislation written by his intelligence advisers to enhance their ability to intercept the electronic communications of foreigners without a court order.
The 227 to 183 House vote capped a high-pressure campaign by the White House to change the nation's wiretap law, in which the administration capitalized on Democrats' fears of being branded weak on terrorism and on a general congressional desire to act on the measure before an August recess.
The Senate had passed the legislation Friday night after House Democrats failed to win enough votes to pass a narrower revision of a statute known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The original statute was enacted after the revelation of CIA abuses in the 1970s, and it required judicial oversight for most federal wiretapping conducted in the United States.
Privacy and civil liberties advocates, and many Democratic lawmakers, complained that the Bush administration's revisions of the law could breach constitutional protections against government intrusion. But the administration, aided by Republican congressional leaders, suggested that a failure to approve what intelligence officials sought could expose the country to a greater risk of terrorist attacks.
Democrats facing reelection next year in conservative districts helped propel the bill to a quick approval. Adding to the pressures they felt were recent intelligence reports about threatening new al-Qaeda activity in Pakistan and the disclosure by House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) of a secret court ruling earlier this year that complicated the wiretapping of purely foreign communications that happen to pass through a communications node on U.S. soil.
The bill would give the National Security Agency the right to collect such communications in the future without a warrant. But it goes further than that: It also would allow the interception and recording of electronic communications involving, at least in part, people "reasonably believed to be outside the United States" without a court's order or oversight.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto emphasized that the bill is not meant to increase eavesdropping on Americans or "to affect in any way the legitimate privacy rights" of U.S. citizens. Data related to Americans in communications with foreigners who are the targets of a U.S. terrorism investigation could be monitored only if intelligence officials have a reasonable expectation of learning information relevant to that probe, a senior U.S. official said.
"There are a lot of people who felt we had to pass something," said one angry Democratic lawmaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of caucus discussions. "It was tantamount to being railroaded."
In a sole substantial concession to Democrats, the administration agreed to a provision allowing the legislation to be reconsidered in six months.
Some House Democrats were still upset by what they saw as a deliberate scuttling by the White House of negotiations on a compromise bill. On Thursday, Democratic leaders reached what they believed was a deal with the government's chief intelligence official, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, only to be presented with a new list of conditions at the last minute. The White House and McConnell have denied that a deal had been reached.
"I think the White House didn't want to take 'yes' for an answer from the Democrats," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), an intelligence committee member.
The administration said that its bill is aimed at bringing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 into step with advances in technology, primarily by restoring the government's power to gather without a warrant foreign intelligence on targets located overseas.