Bill regulating eavesdropping gets overhaul

Bill regulating eavesdropping gets overhaul

Posted: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 7:39 pm
By: AP

By PAMELA HESS Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate finally is expected to pass a bill overhauling rules on secret government eavesdropping, completing a lengthy and bitter debate that pitted privacy and civil liberties concerns against the desire to prevent terrorist attacks. The vote, planned for today, would end almost a year of wrangling between the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, and Congress and the White House over the president’s warrantless wiretapping program that was initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The fight over the bill has centered on one provision: shielding from civil lawsuits telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on American phone and computer lines, without the permission or knowledge of a secret court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The White House had threatened to veto the bill unless it immunized companies like AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. from wiretapping lawsuits. About 40 such lawsuits have been filed. They are all pending before a single federal district court. The lawsuits center around allegations that the White House circumvented U.S. law by going around the FISA court, which was created 30 years ago to prevent the government from abusing its surveillance powers for political purposes, as was done in the Vietnam War and Watergate eras. The court is meant to approve all wiretaps placed inside the U.S. for intelligence-gathering purposes. The law has been interpreted to include international e-mail records stored on servers inside the U.S. The Bush administration brought the wiretapping back under the FISA court’s authority only after The New York Times revealed the existence of the program. A handful of members of Congress knew about the program from top secret briefings. Most members are still forbidden to know the details of the classified program, and some object that they are being asked to grant immunity to the telecoms without first knowing what they did. Opponents of letting telecommunications companies off the hook have proposed amendments that would delay immunity until the full extent of the wiretapping program is revealed by a government investigation, or strip the provision from the bill entirely. They argue that only in court will the full extent of the program be understood, and only a judge should decide whether the program broke the law. The bill tries to address those concerns by requiring inspectors general inside the government to conduct a yearlong investigation into warrantless wiretapping. Beyond immunity, the new surveillance bill also sets new rules for government eavesdropping. Some of them would tighten the reins on current government surveillance activities, and others loosen them compared with a law passed 30 years ago. For example, it would require the government to get FISA court approval before it eavesdrops on an American overseas. Currently, the attorney general approves that electronic surveillance on his own. But the bill also would allow the government to obtain broad, yearlong intercept orders from the FISA court that target foreign groups and people, raising the prospect that communications with innocent Americans would be swept up. The court would approve how the government chooses the targets, and how the intercepted American communications are to be protected. The original FISA law required the government to get wiretapping warrants for each individual targeted from inside the United States, on the rationale that most communications inside the U.S. would involve Americans whose civil liberties must be protected. But technology has changed. Purely foreign communications increasingly pass through U.S. wires and sit on American computer servers, and the law required court orders be obtained to access those as well. The bill would give the government a week to conduct a wiretap in an emergency before it must apply for a court order. The original law only allowed three days. Yearlong wiretapping orders authorized by Congress last year will begin to expire in August. Without a new bill, the government would go back to old FISA rules, requiring multiple new orders to continue those intercepts. The House approved the surveillance overhaul last month. Published in The Messenger 7.9.08

Leave a Comment