Controversial spy bill advances in Senate

Civil liberties groups and Democrats argue a new bill would give approval to an unchecked surveillance regime.

Anne Broache
Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
3 min read
The chairman of a key U.S. Senate panel on Thursday called for swift passage of a controversial bill criticized as an expansion of the government's electronic spying powers.

The pitch from Sen. Arlen Specter on the Senate floor arrived one day after Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee gave the green light to his National Security Surveillance Act, touted as a compromise with the White House to verify the constitutionality of programs like the National Security Agency's terrorist surveillance program. The vote, which had stalled for several weeks, was 10 to 8 along party lines.

"We will be moving ahead, I hope shortly, with the bill to the floor so that we can make a determination on judicial review procedure (and) whatever wiretapping that is going on is judicially approved," Specter said during a brief floor speech.

The Pennsylvania Republican has repeatedly hailed the agreement as a strong symbol that the president does not have a "blank check" to operate programs such as the NSA snooping initiated by the Bush Administration, which critics charge has swept up the Internet and phone activities of millions of innocent Americans.

Even though the legislation does not explicitly require it, Specter maintained that he has President Bush's pledge to submit the existing NSA program for closed-door constitutional vetting. A legislative mandate for the president to take such action would be undesirable because such a move would "curtail his constitutional authority," Specter said.

Democrats and civil liberties groups continued to blast the effort.

"This bill is all about authorizing the president to invade the homes, e-mails and telephone conversations of American citizens in ways that are expressly forbidden by law," Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who serves as the committee's co-chairman, said in a statement Wednesday.

"Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee acted as a rubber stamp for the administration's abuse of power," Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, said in a statement.

Opponents maintained the bill (click here for Microsoft Word document) is a sham that makes it optional for the Bush administration and all future administrations to comply with the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which generally requires a court order for eavesdropping on communications in which at least one end is located in the United States.

The measure, among other things, would insert a new provision into the FISA, stating that nothing in the law "shall be construed to limit the constitutional authority of the president to collect intelligence with respect to foreign powers and agents of foreign powers."

Critics also argued that the measure erodes Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by allowing the FISA court to issue blanket approval for an entire surveillance program, rather than for individual, targeted wiretaps.

"That's not what we need to win the war on terror," Jim Dempsey, policy director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement. "We should focus on the bad guys, not conduct broad sweeps into the lives of ordinary citizens."

It was not immediately clear how the Senate panel's action will affect the House of Representatives, where debate continues over separate bills designed to "modernize" FISA. It was also unclear how the Specter bill will mesh with two similar measures also cleared by the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

In particular, civil liberties groups and Democrats say they prefer the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Improvement and Enhancement Act of 2006, co-sponsored by Specter and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. That measure, which is designed to streamline procedures for applying for FISA court warrants but reaffirms that law's authority over domestic surveillance, passed by 10 votes to 8, with all Democrats and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voting in favor.

Specter on Thursday dismissed as "untrue" any contention that the bills are inconsistent.