- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

FORT MEADE, Md. (AP) — President Bush said yesterday that a law hastily passed in August to temporarily give the government more power to eavesdrop without warrants on foreign terror suspects must be made permanent and expanded.

If this doesn’t happen, Mr. Bush said, “our national security professionals will lose critical tools they need to protect our country.”

“Without these tools, it will be harder to figure out what our enemies are doing to train, recruit and infiltrate operatives into America,” he said during a visit to the headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA).

The 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, governs when warrants for eavesdropping must be obtained from a secret intelligence court. This year’s update — approved by the Senate and House just before Congress adjourned for an August break — allows more efficient interceptions of foreign communications.

Under the new law — the Protect America Act — the government can eavesdrop, without a court order, on communications conducted by a person reasonably thought to be outside the United States, even if an American is on one end of the conversation — as long as that American is not the intended focus or target of the surveillance.

That change was urgently requested by the Bush administration, which said the modernization of communications technology had created a dire gap in the nation’s terrorism intelligence collection capabilities.

Such surveillance was generally prohibited under the original FISA law if the wiretap was conducted inside the United States unless a court approved it. Because of changes in telecommunications technology, many more foreign communications now flow through the United States. The new law allows those to be tapped without a court order.

But civil liberties groups and many Democrats say the new changes go too far. Congress’ Democratic leaders set it to expire in six months so that it could be fine-tuned, and that process is beginning on Capitol Hill now.

Democrats hope to change the law to provide additional oversight when the government eavesdrops on U.S. residents communicating with overseas parties.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said lawmakers understand the need to update the law but also the need to protect the rights and liberties of Americans.

“Today, the president continues to seek unchecked surveillance powers that many of us in Congress cannot support,” Mr. Rockefeller said. “The fact is the [act] did provide authority for collection, but it did not include sufficient protections for Americans. There’s no reason we can’t do both.”

Mr. Bush also pleaded with lawmakers to expand the law, not restrict it. One provision particularly important to the administration but opposed by many Democrats would grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that may have helped the government conduct surveillance before January 2007 without a court order.

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