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Senate approves what Bush wanted on telephone spying

For some time now, the Bush administration has wanted to get clear approval to tap phone conversation of people living abroad, but whose phone conversations pass through US based switching points, so that conversations of terrorists based outside the US can also be intercepted. The current act, the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, was projected as hobbling the capability of US based spy agencies to spy on suspects. This assumed greater significance since the last Intelligence Report warned of Al-Qaeda regrouping and planning further attacks on Americans. The Bush administration deemed this a significant need, and sent the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell to speak to the Senate. This obviously succeeded since the Republican proposed measure was approved in a Democratic majority senate and a Democratic counter measure failed.

The Senate approved the Bush administration’s plan to remove a legal obstacle to eavesdropping on overseas terror suspects, putting pressure on the U.S. House to accept it before leaving for an August recess. President George W. Bush demanded that Congress close an intelligence gap that he said was hobbling the capability of U.S. spy agencies to eavesdrop on terrorists.

A proposal by House Democrats to fix the problem failed today to obtain the two-thirds margin required after McConnell said it “would not allow me to carry out my responsibility to provide warning and to protect the nation.” The measure, like the Democratic alternative in the Senate, would have required a court order to authorize interceptions of e-mails and phone calls of foreign-based terrorists routed through U.S. telephone switching points. In the Senate-passed measure, the secret court that oversees surveillance would have a more limited role. The court would review the program to ensure it was adhering to guidelines drafted by the attorney general and the national intelligence director to ensure Americans’ privacy is protected.

In essence, the Republican version loosens a fair amount of the controls. Now, one knows that the threat is real, but it is never very clear whether the administration is going overboard in its attempts. This measure now goes to the House, but if it cleared the Senate, it is much more likely to pass the House. After all, it has been the Senate in the past that has done a lot of cross-questioning in the past, not the House. With this measure, one can only hope that the administration still respects the right to privacy.

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