WASHINGTON – The Bush administration asked Congress Friday to allow monitoring of more foreigners in the United States during intelligence investigations.
The plan is one of several proposed changes, which have been in the works for more than a year, that go to the heart of a key U.S. surveillance law.
The administration says the changes are intended to help the government better address national security threats by updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to bring it into line with rapid changes in communications technology.
Civil liberties groups see the government's effort as a needless power grab.
The proposal would revise the way the government gets warrants from the secretive FISA court to investigate suspected terrorists, spies and other national security threats.
The administration wants to be able to monitor foreign nationals on American soil if they are thought to have significant intelligence information, but no known links to a foreign power. Under current law, the government must convince a FISA judge that an individual is an agent of a government, terror group or some other foreign adversary.
The administration also wants new provisions to ease surveillance of people suspected of spreading weapons of mass destruction internationally.
And the administration wants to allow government lawyers to decide whether a FISA court order is needed for electronic eavesdropping based on the target of the monitoring, not the mode of communication or the location where the surveillance is being conducted.
One effect of such a change: the National Security Agency would have the authority to monitor foreigners without seeking court approval, even if the surveillance is conducted by tapping phones and e-mail accounts in the United States.
Most often used by the FBI and the NSA, the 1978 FISA law has been updated several times since it was first passed, including in 2001 to allow government access to certain business records.
Among other tools available now, the government can break into homes, hotel rooms and cars to install hidden cameras and listening devices, as well as search drawers, luggage or hard drives.
President Bush has been under fire for his program allowing the NSA to monitor international calls and e-mails coming into the United States, when one party in the communication had suspected links to international terrorism. Earlier this year, Bush asked a federal court to oversee the operations, known as the terrorist surveillance program.
"This legislation is important to ensure that FISA continues to serve the nation as a means to protect our country from foreign security threats, while also continuing to protect the valued privacy interests and civil liberties of persons located in the United States," the Justice Department said in a fact sheet released Friday.
But civil liberties advocates at the American Civil Liberties Union and elsewhere see the changes as a sweeping overhaul that would undermine long-standing protections. Lisa Graves of the Center for National Security Studies said the changes are "poorly conceived" and "not justified," given a lack of oversight on the government's current powers.
Among other changes, the legislation would:
—Clarify the standards the FBI and NSA must use to get court orders for basic information about calls and e-mails — such as the number dialed, e-mail address, or time and date of the communications. Civil liberties advocates contend the change will make it too easy for the government to access this information.
—Triple the life span of a FISA warrant for a non-U.S. citizen from 120 days to one year, allowing the government to monitor much longer without checking back in with a judge. The Justice Department says this would allow the government to focus its resources on cases involving U.S. citizens because it wouldn't have to get as many time-consuming renewals on warrants for cases involving foreigners.
—Give telecommunications companies immunity from civil liability for their cooperation with any intelligence communications program, such as Bush's terrorist surveillance program. Pending lawsuits against companies including Verizon and AT&T allege they violated privacy laws by giving phone records to the NSA for the program.
—Extend from 72 hours to one week the amount of time the government can conduct surveillance without a court order in emergencies.