WASHINGTON – Against the backdrop of a presidential veto threat, the House wrangled Wednesday over an eavesdropping bill that would expand court oversight of government electronic surveillance in the United States.
The bill would allow unfettered surveillance of foreign targets but would require special authorization if the foreign targets were likely to be in contact with people inside the United States — an effort to safeguard Americans' privacy.
The so-called "blanket warrants" would let the government obtain a single order authorizing the surveillance of multiple targets.
Critics say the authorization would tie up intelligence agents in legal red tape, impeding them from conducting urgent surveillance of terrorist suspects. "Congress needs to move forward, not backward," President Bush said at a news conference as the debate began.
House Republicans and the American Civil Liberties Union both denounced the bill Wednesday, for different reasons.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan said intelligence agents would be slowed by lawyers second-guessing their actions. "The problem in the intelligence community hasn't been not enough lawyers," said Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House intelligence committee.
The ACLU opposes the bill because it says it violates constitutional prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures that were dear to the nation's Founding Fathers. "The colonists rose up against King George for the same type of government overreaching," the organization said in a statement.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, countered that the bill carefully balances civil liberties with the need for speed and flexibility in spying on terrorists.
The current surveillance law gave the government so many authorities "that people are not safe and secure in their own homes. The government can go in there and search computers and residences," Reyes said. "This legislation corrects the deficiencies."
Bush has threatened to veto the bill, in part because it lacks retroactive immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies. The firms have been accused in about 40 civil lawsuits of violating wiretapping and intelligence laws by secretly providing the government access to Americans' e-mails and phone records without court orders.
House Democrats have vowed no immunity will be granted until the White House tells Congress exactly what the telecommunications companies did that requires legal protection. The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., joined Tuesday with the Democrats, saying he would not support a retroactive immunity provision until Congress is informed what the companies did.
The administration contends that without immunity the companies could be bankrupted by legal penalties.
The Senate's version of the surveillance bill, expected to be unveiled on Thursday, is likely to include at least a limited immunity provision, according to sources close to the process who demanded anonymity because the measure wasn't final.
The House would explicitly allow surveillance without a court order of illegal immigrants in the United States. It also lengthens the statute of limitations on violations of the electronic surveillance law from five years to 10 years, and it allows emergency electronic surveillance to continue during an appeal if a court order is denied.
The new bill would amend the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which dictates when the government must obtain eavesdropping warrants from a secret intelligence court.
That law was last changed in August, after the administration argued technological advances had made the old law too cumbersome and created a dire gap in its intelligence collection. The updated law allowed the government to eavesdrop without a court order on communications conducted by a person reasonably believed to be outside the U.S., even if an American is on one end of the conversation.
Civil liberties advocates and Congress' Democratic leaders have argued the new law, which expires in January, doesn't adequately protect Americans' privacy.