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House narrowly passes revamped spy bill
Published: 2008-03-14

The U.S. House of Representatives passed on Friday, 213 to 197, the latest version of a controversial bill to modernize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the law under which all electronic intelligence gathering is supposed to be conducted.

The revised bill, proposed earlier this week and known as the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 or H.R. 3773, relaxes the requirement of emergency warrants, giving intelligence officials a week following the start of surveillance to apply for the warrant and judges a month to rule on the legality of the eavesdropping. The bill also grants immunity to telecommunications firms who legally assist in surveillance activities, but does not give immunity for past actions.

"Six years ago, the administration unilaterally chose to engage in warrantless surveillance of American citizens without court review," Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in published remarks. "And last August, when that scheme appeared to be breaking down, the administration pushed through a law it had drafted that essentially transferred the power of independent review from the courts to the attorney general."

The current bill "restore(s) the proper balance," Conyers said.

The Bush Administration ratcheted up their rhetoric, with the White House press secretary calling the bill "a step backward in defending our country." In a statement on the floor of Congress, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) repeated a now-discounted story that blames the death of three U.S. soldiers in Iraq on a 10-hour delay caused by FISA's shortcomings. Further investigation blamed the delay on bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Revising the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has preoccupied Congressional leaders and the Bush Administration ever since the New York Times revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had broadly eavesdropped on telephone and Internet communications. The agency had allegedly installed special rooms equipped with wiretapping hardware in important communications hubs with the blessing of major telecommunications firms. A whistleblower has claimed that AT&T had one such room, while a security consultant recently stated that a major cellular telecommunications company allowed a third party to directly connect, via a line known as the "Quantico circuit," into their systems.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) passed in 1978, requires that all government surveillance for intelligence purposes must first be sanctioned by a court order allowing the eavesdropping from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The secretive court, which rarely issues rulings, also allows emergency warrants up to 72 hours after surveillance has begun. Some critics have argued that the 72-hour limit is not long enough to file and get approved a warrant, and the House bill extends the limits.

Last month, the Senate passed a bi-partisan bill that would give the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence the ability to authorize warrants and would have granted full, retroactive, immunity to any telecommunications carrier that cooperated with the Bush Administration's surveillance.

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Posted by: Robert Lemos
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