Bush Calls for Expansion of Spy Law

The Associated Press
Thursday, September 20, 2007; 1:31 AM

FORT MEADE, Md. -- President Bush said Wednesday he wants Congress to expand and make permanent a law that temporarily gives the government more power to eavesdrop without warrants on suspected foreign terrorists.

Without such action, Bush said, "our national security professionals will lose critical tools they need to protect our country."

"It will be harder to figure out what our enemies are doing to train, recruit and infiltrate operatives into America," the president said during a visit to the super-secret National Security Agency's headquarters. "Without these tools, our country will be much more vulnerable to attack."

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act governs when the government must obtain warrants for eavesdropping from a secret intelligence court. This year's update _ approved just before Congress' August break _ allows more efficient interceptions of foreign communications.

Under the new law, the government can eavesdrop without a court order on communications conducted by a person reasonably believed to be outside the U.S., even if an American is on one end of the conversation _ so long as that American is not the intended focus or target of the surveillance.

In requesting the change, the Bush administration said technological advances in communications had created a dire gap in the ability to collect intelligence on terrorists.

Such surveillance generally was prohibited under the original law if the wiretap was conducted inside the U.S., unless a court approved it. Because of changes in technology, many more foreign communications now flow through the U.S. The new law, known as the Protect America Act, allows those to be tapped without a court order.

Civil liberties groups and many Democrats say the new changes go too far. Democratic leaders in Congress set the law to expire in six months so that it could be fine-tuned; that process now is beginning on Capitol Hill.

Democrats hope for changes that would provide additional oversight when the government eavesdrops on U.S. residents communicating with overseas parties.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said lawmakers understand the need to update the law, but also the need to protect the rights and liberties of Americans.

"For over five years, the president carried out a warrantless surveillance program that ignored the law and the role of court oversight," Rockefeller said. "Today, the president continues to seek unchecked surveillance powers that many of us in Congress cannot support. The fact is, the Protect America Act did provide authority for collection, but it did not include sufficient protections for Americans. There's no reason we can't do both," Rockefeller said.

"The president needs to step up to the plate and show that he is willing to work with Congress to get this important legislation passed."

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