Eavesdropping Reforms Empower Spy Chief
Monday, August 6, 2007; 7:41 PM
WASHINGTON -- For the first time in nearly four decades, a senior intelligence official _ not a secretive federal court _ will have a decisive voice in whether Americans' communications can be monitored when they talk to foreigners overseas.
The shift came over the weekend as Congress hustled through changes to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA.
The bill provides new powers to the National Security Agency to monitor communications that enter the United States and involve foreigners who are the subjects of a national security investigation.
Apprehensive about what they were doing, Congress specified that the new provisions would expire after six months, unless renewed.
They would give National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales joint authority to approve the monitoring of such calls and e-mails, rather than the 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
That means an intelligence official is now empowered to sort through the legalistic, secretive world of FISA, rather than a judge or the nation's highest law enforcement officer.
McConnell was added to the legal decision-making after lawmakers argued that the embattled attorney general shouldn't hold the power alone. The spy chief's experience is largely in military intelligence, not legal matters.
Civil liberties groups and some Democrats call the bill a vast expansion of government power. In the past several days, officials who work for McConnell, the Justice Department and the Republican congressional leadership have argued vehemently that that isn't so.
On Monday, White House spokeswoman Tony Fratto dismissed as "highly misleading" any suggestion that the changes broadly expanded the government's authority to eavesdrop on Americans' communications without court approval.
However, the law's wording _ underscored by conversations with administration officials _ shows the rules governing when and how Americans' calls and e-mails will be monitored have changed significantly.
Communications that can get caught up in intelligence collection require a spectrum of approvals, depending on the circumstances. Generally, such calls, e-mails, text messages and other electronic exchanges fall into three categories:
_ Purely foreign overseas communications. The NSA can monitor these calls and e-mails without any signoff from a judge or a senior government official.