Senate votes to expand U.S. spy authority

Times Staff Writer

Bowing to pressure from the Bush administration, the Senate passed emergency legislation Friday that would significantly expand the authority of U.S. spy agencies to monitor overseas phone calls and e-mails.

It also would remove requirements for court approval when those communications passed through the United States.

The measure would clear away an array of legal obstacles that President Bush and top intelligence officials said were impeding the nation’s ability to track the communications of Al Qaeda operatives and other terrorism suspects abroad.

The House is scheduled to vote on an identical bill today; congressional officials said they expected the measure to pass. On Friday, the House rejected a competing version offered by Democrats.

The Senate bill, approved 60-28, “will give our intelligence professionals the essential tools they need to protect our nation,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.


“It is urgent that this legislation become law as quickly as possible.”

The Senate’s action was a key victory for Bush at a time when adverse court rulings and dismal approval ratings have forced his administration to retreat from some of its most aggressive assertions of executive authority in the war on terrorism.

Bush had pressured Congress to pass the legislation before it left on a monthlong break, with administration officials repeatedly pointing to recent intelligence reports that have warned that Al Qaeda is regrouping in Pakistan and has refocused on striking the United States.

The measure’s scope stopped short of the overhaul Bush had sought, and it is scheduled to expire in six months so that lawmakers can evaluate its changes.

Those voting against the bill included Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). He said the legislation lacked “the privacy protections and safeguards American citizens deserve and expect.”

At the heart of the debate is a collection of espionage laws known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed in 1978 to crack down on abuses by spy agencies accused of illegally spying on Americans.

Since then, U.S. intelligence agencies have been required to obtain prior approval from a special FISA court before intercepting the communications of people in the United States, even if they are foreign citizens suspected of having ties to terrorist groups.

Intelligence officials have complained bitterly that the nearly 30-year-old statute has failed to keep pace with profound technological changes such as cellular telephones and the Internet.

Under the Senate bill’s central provision, if the government could show that surveillance targets were “reasonably believed” to be overseas, prior court approval would not be required.

The measure would give new authority to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to make that determination.

Democrats had fought this language, largely because of their expressed distrust of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, who has recently been accused of misleading Congress in testimony about U.S. wiretapping operations.

But Democrats ultimately relented after the White House made concessions. One concession would require the government to submit the overall structure of the surveillance program to the FISA court for review of the procedures under which the attorney general and intelligence director determined that surveillance targets were indeed overseas.

Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to bypass courts and monitor international communications, even those of U.S. citizens, in cases when one of those communicating was believed to have ties to Al Qaeda.

In January, facing scrutiny from Congress and accusations that the program was unconstitutional, Bush shifted the program to the FISA court’s purview.

Sometime later, however, a FISA judge ruled that certain aspects of the Bush administration surveillance program violated the law. Intelligence officials indicated that the ruling required the government to obtain warrants even for “foreign to foreign” communications when the e-mail or phone call crossed networks in the United States.

That secret ruling -- the court’s deliberations are classified -- caused a panic in intelligence circles.

National Intelligence Director J. Michael McConnell warned that U.S. spy agencies were suddenly unable to collect dangerously large swaths of foreign communications.

Such warnings, combined with the recent intelligence on Al Qaeda’s resurgence, led to the last-minute scramble by lawmakers to devise a patch allowing the surveillance.