Lawyers wary of expanded wiretapping powers

Head of the American Bar Association calls on Congress to roll back a week-old law broadening the government’s domestic eavesdropping ability.

The expansion of the government's ability to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens' telephone calls and e-mails was a prominent discussion topic at the American Bar Association's annual meeting, which attracted about 9,000 attorneys to San Francisco over the weekend.

ABA President Karen Mathis kicked off the conference on Friday by calling on Congress to roll back a week-old law expanding that power. Lawmakers should "move at once" upon reconvening after Labor Day, she said.

The mandate, which expires in six months unless Congress extends it, lets the director of national intelligence and the attorney general authorize the spying without first getting warrants from a secret court created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"With today's technology and government having almost limitless power to secretly probe the most private communications of Americans, the ABA is concerned that this power is too great to be held in the hands of any one authority," Mathis said. History has shown that when government agents bypass judges, abuses occur, she said.

Although revisions to FISA are being sought because of new technological and security threats, the original law's principles "are tireless and timeless," Mathis said. "In an age of instant electronic communications, our government must protect our security and our constitutional freedoms."

The ABA's House of Delegates recognized in 2006 that surveillance of U.S. citizens should face judicial scrutiny to the maximum extent possible, Mathis recalled. Any wholesale changes in FISA should be approved only after a thorough congressional review, including evidence of how that law is inadequate, she said.

The same ABA policymaking body is slated to vote on a proposal to address government "state secret" claims, which are currently a key factor in a pair of spying cases. Courts should "make every effort" to avoid dismissing civil suits based on the doctrine, the recommendation states.

The Justice Department has cited the privilege in an attempt to get a California federal judge to toss out claims of civil liberties violations against telecommunications firms reportedly involved in a National Security Agency wiretapping program.

In a separate case, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court's ruling in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had challenged the NSA program. The court found that the group lacked standing without having access to classified government data.

The ABA House of Delegates also was scheduled to vote on a proposal to conduct a study of and make recommendations concerning the appointment, retention and dismissal of U.S. attorneys. Congress is currently investigating whether the Bush administration fired nine U.S. attorneys for political reasons.

A number of prominent figures -- including Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy; former U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr; and "Jurassic Park" author Michael Crichton -- planned to speak at the conference, which ends Tuesday.

Several members of Congress also were slated to talk about key actions of the 110th Congress, and an impressive roster of tech experts was featured in discussions about privacy and security in the Internet age.

NEXT STORY: Summer Break