Democrats to move quickly on wiretap legislation

House Democrats unveiled legislation Tuesday to rein in the Bush administration's spying activities by requiring more review from a secret court but not specific warrants when communications of U.S. citizens are intercepted.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., portrayed the bill as a compromise between giving the administration the tools to protect the country from terrorists while limiting broad powers Congress gave the White House in August under a temporary measure to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"We don't think we're rolling over to the Bush administration at all," Hoyer said. "This is a carefully constructed balance."

House leaders laid out an aggressive schedule for moving the bill, with the Judiciary and Intelligence committees scheduled to mark it up Wednesday and floor action planned for next week. Two months ago, Democrats said they were forced into a corner by the administration and agreed to pass the temporary bill but planned to roll back the administration's eavesdropping powers when a permanent bill was considered.

The heart of the bill would require the administration to get a blanket warrant from the secret FISA court to monitor the phone calls or e-mails of suspected foreign terrorists when those communications pass through U.S. telecommunications networks or involve a U.S. citizen. Each blanket warrant -- or basket warrant -- would apply to a specific group of suspected foreign terrorists and be good for one year.

The administration could seek as many blanket warrants as it wanted. The administration would not be required to get a warrant to monitor the phone calls or e-mails of U.S. citizens. Instead, the administration would have to minimize the collection of communications by U.S. individuals.

Democratic aides said the FISA court would be expected to approve the administration's procedures for minimizing those communications when applying for a basket warrant. The administration would be required to get a warrant, however, if a citizen became the target of an investigation.

The bill would also give the administration emergency authority to monitor communications of foreign suspects for up to 45 days before getting approval from the FISA court. The bill's provisions would expire at the end of 2009.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook