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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.

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The New York Times notes that during the hearing, Mr. McConnell asserted that, even though the White House was seeking expanded justifications for FISA warrants, the president still has the authority to conduct surveillance inside the United States without a warrant. He said that no such surveillance is currently being conducted.

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During Tuesday's hearings, lawmakers expressed skepticism about the need to update the law, which has already been updated several times in the past 29 years. The Times also writes that many Democrats were riled by an apparent absence of information about domestic spying operations.

Several Democratic lawmakers expressed frustration on Tuesday that the administration had not provided documents related to the National Security Agency program, which the White House called the Terrorist Surveillance Program. They suggested that they would be reluctant to agree to a change in the surveillance law without more information from the White House.
"To this day, we have never been provided the presidential authorization that cleared that program to go or the attorney general-Department of Justice opinions that declared it to be lawful," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island. "Where's the transparency as to the presidential authorizations for this closed program? That's a pretty big 'we're not going to tell you' in this new atmosphere of trust we're trying to build."

Democratic senators also cited what they regarded as past abuses of trust by US intelligence agencies. Mr. Whitehouse and other senators invoked a March audit by the Justice Department's inspector general, reported by The Washington Post, that found pervasive violations in the FBI's use of national security letters to obtain phone, e-mail, and financial records of US residents and visitors.

The American Civil Liberties Union also noted past revelations of controversial domestic surveillance programs. In a strongly worded press release, the ACLU denounced the proposed "get-out-of-jail-free card" for telecom companies, and the White House's attempt to "treat innocent Americans as suspects."

"Broadening FISA would only reward and legitimize both the Justice Department and executive branch's numerous violations of the law," said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "Giving the Department of Justice more latitude to conduct warrantless searches is ludicrous when you consider that it has shown no restraint with the power it already has. If a little boy destroys a tricycle, you don't hand him the keys to the car."