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White House seeks expanded domestic-spying powers

Administration says reform needed to deal with new technology, but Senate committee expresses skepticism.

By / May 3, 2007

Senior Bush administration officials proposed to a Senate committee Tuesday new laws that they claim are needed to update domestic-surveillance laws, but which critics say would make it easier for government agencies to spy on people inside the United States.

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The Associated Press reports that administration officials faced tough questions from Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats, who were highly skeptical of the proposal to expand the reasons for issuing warrants and provide legal immunity to telecom companies that assist in surveillance operations.

For two hours, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein and their lawyers tried to parry increasingly dubious and hostile questions. They deferred many answers to a committee session closed to the public.
With little apparent success, they portrayed the administration bill as merely an adjustment to technological changes wrought by cell phones, e-mail and the Internet since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was enacted in the 1970s. Under current rules, McConnell said, "We're actually missing a significant portion of what we should be getting."

The current rules, enacted in 1978 under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), require that a non-citizen in the United States be connected to a foreign power or terrorism suspect for a secret court to consider issuing a warrant authorizing the federal government conduct surveillance. The AP reported Tuesday that this court issued 2,176 such warrants in 2006, a record number. Of all the warrant requests made in 2006, the court denied only one.

The proposed law, which is available as a PDF from the Senate Intelligence Committee's website, authorizes warrants to eavesdrop on those "who possess or receive significant foreign intelligence information while in the United States" (emphasis theirs) even if the connection to a foreign power or terrorism suspect is "unclear."

The bill protects from lawsuits telecom companies that cooperate with the government's domestic spying operations, and does so retroactively from Sept. 11, 2001. Additionally, it moves legal actions against these companies from state to federal court.

An April 13 press release issued by the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence defends the legislation, saying that the current FISA rules do not reflect current technology and that eliminating cumbersome rules would free up intelligence agencies to work harder at safeguarding privacy.

Revolutions in telecommunications technology have brought within FISA's scope communications that Congress did not intend to be covered – and, as a result, extensive resources are now expended obtaining court approval for acquiring communications that do not directly or substantially involve the privacy interests of Americans. Restoring FISA to its original focus will enhance our intelligence capabilities while allowing the Intelligence Community to devote more resources to protecting the privacy interests of people in the United States.