|Page 2 of 2 <|
House Approves Wiretap Measure
Because the law has not kept up with advances in telecommunications, McConnell said in congressional testimony, the government "is significantly burdened in capturing overseas communications of foreign terrorists planning to conduct attacks inside the United States."
Civil liberties and privacy advocates and a majority of Democrats said the bill could allow the monitoring of virtually any calls, e-mails or other communications going overseas that originate in the United States, without a court order, if the government deems the recipient to be the target of a U.S. probe.
Last night, several Democrats said the bill would undermine the Fourth Amendment. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said lawmakers were being "stampeded by fearmongering and deception" into voting for the bill. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) warned that the bill would lead to "potential unprecedented abuse of innocent Americans' privacy."
Republicans and administration officials argued to the contrary that the distinctions in the present law -- between calls inside and outside the country -- are outmoded in an age of cellphones that work on multiple continents. What intelligence officials seek, a White House official said in an interview yesterday, is the ability to "surveil a target wherever the call [or other communication involving that target] comes from," and that the new legislation would provide that.
In place of a court's approval -- which intelligence officials worried might come too slowly -- the NSA would institute a system of internal bureaucratic controls.
A senior intelligence official said that in cases in which an overseas target is communicating with people in the United States not relevant to an investigation, their names are "minimized," or stripped from the transcript, before it is disseminated. "You won't see data mining in there," the official said. "You won't see vast drift net surveillance of Americans. . . . What we do not do is target people in the United States without a warrant."
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, said that the Democrats would introduce legislation on surveillance in the fall and would conduct oversight of the administration's surveillance program.
A narrower Democratic alternative, which Democrats said they crafted partly in response to McConnell's concerns, won majority support but nonetheless failed because it did not collect the necessary two-thirds vote Friday night in the House. It failed after an emotional debate in which Republicans charged Democrats with being soft on terrorism and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused Republicans of not caring "about the truth."
Under the administration's version of the bill, the director of national intelligence and the attorney general can authorize the surveillance of all communications involving foreign targets. Oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, composed of federal judges whose deliberations are secret, would be limited to examining whether the government's guidelines for targeting overseas suspects are appropriate. The court would not authorize the surveillance.
The bill's six-month sunset clause did not assuage some critics.
"I'm not comfortable suspending the constitution even temporarily," said Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), a member of the House intelligence committee. "The countries we detest around the world are the ones that spy on their own people. Usually they say they do it for the sake of public safety and security."