Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed on Wednesday a two-week extension to the Protect America Act, a controversial electronic surveillance law that allows the U.S. government to wiretap the communications of persons located outside the U.S. without first getting a warrant.
Congress and the Bush Administration continue to battle over a replacement for the law. A major sticking point is whether telecommunications companies that previously cooperated with the National Security Agency, the federal department in charge of foreign surveillance and communications security, should be exempt from lawsuits. While the Bush Administration had opposed any temporary extension to the law, President Bush is expected to allow the extension.
Last week, the Senate voted 60-36 to advance a bill that allows year-long authorization of wiretapping activities and would give retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that gave the Bush Administration access to their customers communications without the warrants required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Under FISA, passed in 1978, the government is allowed to wiretap targets of interest, as long as it applied for a warrant within 72 hours.
The debate over the legality of the U.S. government's surveillance activities, which the Bush Administration refers to as the "Terrorist Surveillance Program," started in December 2005 after the New York Times published an article revealing the program. More than three dozens lawsuits have been filed against the telecommunications companies that cooperated with the U.S. government and the National Security Agency -- the federal agency responsible for intelligence and surveillance. Ever since a stop-gap measure giving the Bush Administration significant surveillance powers passed in August, Congress has debated the form of future wiretapping for foreign intelligence. Originally, congressional leaders wanted to pass a law in December, but delayed the debate until this month.
The White House has urged lawmakers to quickly pass its favored legislation, so that the nation is not left with an "intelligence gap" in its attempts to track terrorism groups.
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Posted by: Robert Lemos