- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2008

House leaders struck a bipartisan agreement Thursday to update laws for government spying on e-mail and phone calls of foreign terror suspects, ending a four-month stalemate between Democrats and Republicans, which critics say left the country vulnerable to attack.

The deal satisfied Republican demands that the updated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows the government to eavesdrop on foreign calls routed through U.S. telecommunications systems and that U.S. phone companies get some immunity from lawsuits over the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program following the Sept. 11 attacks.

It also satisfied Democratic requests for greater protections of civil liberties of U.S. residents, requiring enhanced scrutiny by offices of the U.S. Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to ensure U.S. residents are not targeted by surveillance or unwittingly monitored by U.S. spy agencies.

“This bipartisan bill balances the needs of our intelligence community with Americans’ civil liberties, and provides critical new oversight and accountability requirements,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “It is the result of compromise, and like any compromise is not perfect, but I believe it strikes a sound balance.”

The legislation sunsets in 2012, ensuring that Congress will revisit the issues, Mr. Hoyer said.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said the deal illustrated how important legislation can advance when both sides compromise.

“During this process, we all worked from the very basic premise that we had to find a way to modernize FISA to ensure that our intelligence community has the tools it needs to continue monitoring foreign-based, terrorist communications, while maintaining the protections of individual liberties contained in the existing FISA law,” he said. “I believe we have accomplished that in this bill.”

The update to the 1978 FISA law was needed because it treated foreign calls and e-mails the same as domestic phone calls requiring wiretap warrants from the secret FISA court because most international electronic communications now course through U.S. networks.

Congress passed a temporary fix last year, the Protect America Act, which expired in February and House Democrats refused to extend because of civil liberties concerns.

“Since the expiration of that bill, our intelligence community has been forced to operate under a temporary system that could impede their ability to track new terrorist threats,” said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican and vice-chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

“Today we reached a bipartisan solution that will put the intelligence community back in business, protect American families from attack and protect our civil liberties.”

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