By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 14, 2008
A bipartisan group of congressional negotiators neared a deal yesterday on controversial wiretapping legislation that could be unveiled as early as next week, according to Capitol Hill sources and civil liberties advocates monitoring the talks.
Lawmakers have been wrangling for months over how to extend warrantless surveillance that Bush administration officials consider central to national security. Agreement has proved elusive because of privacy concerns as well as questions about telecommunications companies seeking immunity from lawsuits over their role in helping the government monitor phone calls and e-mail after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey recently told reporters that overhauling the law is among his highest priorities. Not updating the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act could cause investigators to miss important clues to thwart terrorists, administration officials say.
A key element of the new plan would give U.S. district courts the chance to evaluate whether telecommunications companies deserve retroactive protection from lawsuits. A previous proposal floated by Republicans would have put the question to the secret FISA court that approves warrants.
Discussions extended late into the afternoon yesterday as aides for Sens. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) hammered out details with staff members for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). Details in the current proposal continue to evolve, and await vetting by House and Senate leaders, according to congressional sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process is not yet complete.
Telephone and Internet service providers say they received written assurances that the warrantless wiretapping program was legal at the time they agreed to participate. The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups, however, said the telecoms should be held to a higher legal standard for helping the government eavesdrop on their customers.
"It sounds like they've crafted a bill that gives the president everything he wants," said ACLU legislative director Caroline Frederickson. "The essence of this so-called compromise appears to be the White House legislation with a couple of ribbons around it."
Frederickson also took issue with what she called a massive loophole in the plan that would give investigators free rein to perform warrantless surveillance under "exigent circumstances," when they fear critical information will be lost if they fail to move quickly. She said the language under consideration by congressional negotiators would not force officials to destroy the data they collected if authorities later concluded the efforts were not a real emergency.
While previous efforts at compromise have foundered, administration officials and lawmakers have said they hope to reach agreement before August, when a series of wiretapping orders the government secured last year will begin to expire.