Thursday, October 18, 2007

House Democrats, confounded by a Republican procedural maneuver that would force an embarrassing vote on terrorism, yesterday called off a vote on an electronic-surveillance bill that the White House opposes.

Republicans would have forced Democrats either to vote to effectively kill the bill that restricts federal wiretap power or to vote against authorizing the government to spy on Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups.

“We stopped them in their tracks,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

Mr. Boehner said the Democrats faced “a very simple choice.”

“They can allow our intelligence officials to conduct surveillance on the likes of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda or prohibit them from doing so and jeopardize our national security,” he said. “Every member of the majority will now have the opportunity to go on record.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said it was not a setback for the bill, which the White House warns would open intelligence gaps the Democrat-led Congress voted to close just two months ago when updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

“We are going to finish it next week,” said Mr. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, adding that the procedural move had only slowed action.

A Democratic leadership aide said the “legislative maneuvering was a cynical attempt by Republicans to kill the bill that makes crucial updates to FISA.”

Democrats hail the bill as a bulwark for civil liberties, saying it stops foreign intelligence surveillance from snagging Americans and prevents the government from conducting warrantless electronic eavesdropping inside the United States.

Critics say the measure would impede the global war on terrorism by forcing spy agencies to jump through legal hoops before tapping phone calls in foreign countries, including for known terrorists calling into the United States and possibly electronic communication intercepted on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Republicans stopped the legislation, which was expected to pass easily in a vote scheduled for early yesterday afternoon, by announcing plans to submit a motion to recommit. The move, rarely used before this session, lets the minority party try to change bills as they approach final passage. If it passes, the bill is sent back to its originating committee with instructions. Being sent back effectively kills the proposal.

The instructions are what made this motion so potent. It would have ordered the bill amended to prohibit the law from interfering with “surveillance needed to prevent Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or any other foreign terrorist organization” from attacking the U.S.

“We are not playing around here,” said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, chief deputy Republican whip. “The Democrats saw that this was serious, and they could not defeat our policy position.”

The bill — dubbed the Responsible Electronic Surveillance That is Overseen, Reviewed and Effective Act of 2007, or the Restore Act — rolls back the expanded eavesdropping authority passed in August to modernize the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The secret FISA court was created to watchdog foreign intelligence surveillance inside the United States. Advances in telecommunications technology inadvertently extended its jurisdiction to spying abroad as most overseas calls now zip through U.S. networks.

The law passed in August — the Protect America Act — exempts foreign calls from FISA, requiring court approval only to eavesdropping on Americans. The FISA court also regularly reviews ongoing surveillance of overseas targets.

The Restore Act reverses course and explicitly broadens the secret court’s power to include wiretaps of foreigners abroad. It would require intelligence agencies to apply for a one-year “blanket” or “basket” authorization to eavesdrop on a group of overseas targets.

It also would add several oversight measures, including a FISA court review to make sure targets are outside the U.S., quarterly audits by the Justice Department inspector general and an annual administration report on every U.S. person whose communications were intercepted.

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