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House aims to scrutinize warrantless taps
Robert Lemos, SecurityFocus 2008-03-13

The fight over a law to grant the U.S. government greater surveillance capabilities intensified on Wednesday as a score of House Democrats signed a statement refusing to give telecommunications firms immunity from prosecution for cooperating with, potentially illegally, past government wiretaps without warrants.

The statement, signed by 20 Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee, refused to extend immunity to companies retroactively because the Bush Administration had not presented a "credible case justifying the extraordinary action." Instead, the Committee members support a resolution that would allow telecommunications companies to defend themselves in court, allowing classified information to presented to only the judge as a safety measure.

"Our review of the classified information has reinforced serious concerns about the potential illegality of the Administration's actions in authorizing and carrying out its warrantless surveillance program," stated the signatories, led by John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI). "We, therefore, recommend the creation of a bipartisan commission to conduct hearings and take other evidence to fully examine that program."

On Tuesday, House Representatives circulated a bill that would deny telecommunications firms retroactive immunity from lawsuits and would set up a commission to investigate the Bush Administration's actions. The bill would continue to make the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) the sole body able to approve surveillance, has provisions for emergency wiretaps, does not allow intelligence officials to skirt the rules if targeting people outside the U.S., and gives immunity to telecommunications companies for current and future cooperation, according to a summary posted by Wired News.

The Attorney General and Director of National Intelligence released a joint statement on Tuesday condemning the latest House draft.

"Based on initial summaries of what the proposal contains, we are concerned that the proposal would not provide the Intelligence Community the critical tools needed to protect the country," the intelligence officials stated (pdf). "The Senate already has passed a bipartisan bill that would give our intelligence professionals the tools they need to keep America safe. The bipartisan bill was carefully crafted to ensure important intelligence operations were not harmed by new legislation."

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.

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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