Bush asks Congress to alter 1978 eavesdropping law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration asked Congress on Friday to expand the number of people it can subject to electronic surveillance in the United States.

President George W. Bush talks during a meeting on the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Reauthorization with education stakeholders in the Roosevelt Room of The White House in Washington April 12, 2007. The Bush administration asked Congress on Friday to expand the number of people it can subject to electronic surveillance in the United States. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The request was contained in a proposed bill authored by intelligence and Justice Department officials that also protects companies that cooperate with spy operations.

Legislation submitted a week ahead of a Senate hearing on government surveillance practices calls for the 1978 law that governs eavesdropping operations to be updated to combat the threat from Islamist militants who use computer and wireless technology that did not exist in the 1970s.

It was not clear what kind of reception the proposal would receive in Congress, where Democrats took over in January for the first time since 1994.

But the move was likely to reinvigorate a congressional debate over the effectiveness of the generation-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Several efforts to update the law, designed to oversee electronic eavesdropping against foreign agents operating inside the United States, failed in Congress last year.

“The Justice Department is selling this new bill as a better way to protect our privacy and civil liberties. Lawmakers should reject such false advertising,” said Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union.

FISA, which requires the government to get court warrants for surveillance, was at the center of political controversy over President George W. Bush’s domestic spying program, which allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the international telephone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens without warrants.

The program was suspended for a review by a secret federal court that grants FISA warrants.


Senior administration officials, who spoke to reporters only on condition of anonymity, said they proposed to add two new categories of non-U.S. persons to FISA’s definition for foreign agents who can be targeted for surveillance.

Under current law, a U.S. person is either a U.S. citizen or a foreign national with permanent residence status.

“It adds a new category of individuals to the non-U.S. person-agent-of-a-foreign-power definition to include people who we believe have significant foreign intelligence information but where the relationship between that person and the foreign power is unclear,” said one official.

Foreign powers can include the governments of other countries as well as militant groups including al Qaeda.

A second new category of foreign agents would be non-U.S. persons involved in a deliberate attempt to proliferate weapons of mass destruction.

The bill extends the life of court warrants that authorize eavesdropping on non-U.S. persons from 120 days to one year.

It also shields companies against legal liabilities if they participate in “lawful” eavesdropping activities.

Major telecommunications companies accused of participating in the NSA spying program have faced federal lawsuits charging involvement in illegal espionage.

Another main thrust of the bill is to drop FISA provisions by dropping references to older technology and refocusing the instead law on categories of persons who can be targeted.