House panels advance bill to rein in surveillance laws

Times Staff Writer

Defying a veto threat from President Bush, congressional Democrats advanced legislation Wednesday that would put new restrictions on the eavesdropping authorities of the nation’s spy agencies.

Voting along party lines, the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees approved a bill that would give a special surveillance court more power to monitor a controversial spying program that Bush secretly authorized after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The measure would revise legislation Congress passed two months ago in a rushed, end-of-summer session. The bill would place tighter limits on the National Security Agency’s ability to monitor phone calls and e-mails of Americans. It excludes language sought by the White House that would exempt U.S. telecommunications companies from legal liability for turning over their customers’ records to the NSA.

The House committee votes came just hours after Bush denounced the bill, saying it “would take us backward” and weaken the government’s ability to intercept the communications of terrorists overseas.


“My administration has serious concerns about some of its provisions,” Bush said in remarks at the White House. “Terrorists in faraway lands are plotting and planning new ways to kill Americans. . . and it would be a grave mistake for Congress to weaken this tool.”

The standoff reflects how quickly partisan tensions have resurfaced in the debate over U.S. spy powers, a source of bitter dispute between Democrats and the White House since it was revealed nearly two years ago that Bush had authorized warrantless wiretapping of international phone calls even if one of the parties was in the United States.

Responding to Bush’s remarks, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said the president was trying to use the issue for political advantage.

“Those who oppose this bill are doing so for one reason,” Conyers said. “They are trying to convince Americans that those of us who support this legislation are somehow less committed to protecting this country from attack.”


The legislation is the latest in a series of attempts to overhaul intelligence laws passed in the 1970s that were designed to rein in abuses by the CIA and other agencies caught spying on Americans.

Top intelligence officials have complained that outdated provisions of those laws, combined with rapid changes in communications technologies, had undermined the United States’ ability to track the communications of foreign enemies.

Congress passed sweeping changes to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in August, but lawmakers were so bitterly divided about the measure -- and the heated atmosphere in which the vote took place -- that they made the revisions temporary, set to expire in February.

Wednesday’s votes were initial steps toward making permanent changes, with Democrats vowing to undo provisions that had prompted complaints from civil liberties advocates, and Republicans pushing to preserve executive branch authority.

The measure passed by the committees would keep intact language giving the NSA wide latitude to intercept international calls and e-mails without court approval, even those that pass through telecommunications networks in the United States or involve a person residing in the country.

But the bill includes a series of changes that would impose new checks in cases when Americans’ communications would be collected.

One provision would require a finding of probable cause before the NSA can conduct surveillance on Americans traveling abroad. Another would bolster the FISA court’s ability to oversee the procedures the NSA uses to identify foreign surveillance targets, a provision designed to reduce the likelihood of improper targeting of Americans.

A major source of friction between Republicans and Democrats is a provision that was not in the House measure.


Bush said that before he would sign any FISA legislation, “it must grant liability protection to companies who are facing multibillion-dollar lawsuits only because they are believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend our nation following the 9/11 attacks.”

He was referring to U.S. telecommunications companies that have been sued for surrendering to the NSA vast quantities of customer data, including records of phone calls and e-mails.

Intelligence officials have described that cooperation as a valuable component of the program, enabling the NSA to identify foreign targets and siphon off their calls or e-mails as they cross vast U.S. data networks.

Democrats have resisted granting retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies, demanding that the Bush administration turn over internal records describing the companies’ role in the eavesdropping program.

“It would be grossly irresponsible for Congress to immunize companies without knowing whether their conduct was legal or not,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

There are minor differences between the bills passed by the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, reflecting amendments approved by each panel. But Democratic leadership officials said those differences could be resolved by committee heads before the measure is put to a vote in the full chamber.

Senate committees have also begun drafting new FISA legislation, part of an effort to complete an overhaul before completing work for the year.