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US House to consider Bush terrorism spy bill

The White House was halfway to its goal of winning expanded powers to eavesdrop on suspected foreign terrorists after the Senate Democrats agreed to pass a bill to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

world Updated: Aug 04, 2007 11:44 IST
Lara Jakes Jordan
Lara Jakes Jordan

The White House was halfway to its goal of winning expanded powers to eavesdrop on suspected foreign terrorists.

Senate Democrats reluctantly agreed to passing a bill on Friday night to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The House of Representatives was expected to consider it Saturday after rejecting a Democratic alternative the night before. The high-stakes showdown over national security hinged largely on how early a special court will review the government's surveillance of foreigners' overseas phone calls and Internet messages without warrants.

President George W Bush has demanded that Congress give him the expanded authority before leaving for vacation this weekend. The White House applauded the Senate vote and urged the House to quickly follow suit.

The bill "will give our intelligence professionals the essential tools they need to protect our nation," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "It is urgent that this legislation become law as quickly as possible."

The Senate-approved plan, largely crafted by the White House, was barely pushed through after Bush promised to veto a stricter proposal that would have required a court review to begin within 10 days. It gives Bush the expanded eavesdropping authority for six months.

Senate Republicans, aided by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, said the update to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, would at least temporarily close gaps in the nation's security system.

"Al-Qaida is not going on vacation this month," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. "And we can't either until we know we've done our duty to the American people." In the House, Democrats lost an effort to push a proposal that called for stricter court oversight of the way the government would ensure its spying would not target Americans.

"We can have security and our civil liberties," said Democratic Rep John Tierney.

Current law requires court review of government surveillance of suspected terrorists in the United States. It does not specifically address the government's ability to intercept messages believed to come from foreigners overseas.

The Bush administration began pressing for changes to the law after a recent ruling by the special FISA court that barred the government from eavesdropping on foreign suspects whose messages were being routed through U.S. communications carriers, including Internet sites.

Democrats agreed the law should not restrict US spies from tapping in on foreign suspects. However, they initially demanded that the FISA court review the eavesdropping process before it begins to make sure that Americans are not targeted. Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold angrily chastised his colleagues for bending to the administration's will.

"The day we start deferring to someone who's not a member of this body ... is a sad day for the US Senate," Feingold said.

First Published: Aug 04, 2007 11:39 IST