By Jason Reed, Reuters

President Bush speaks to the media during his visit to the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md., Wednesday. Vice President Dick Cheney, left, and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell stand behind him.

EAVESDROPPING LAW

In 2006, the Bush administration filed 2,181 applications for warrants to perform surveillance in national security cases. The law governing such “foreign intelligence surveillance” searches was modified last month but expires in February. Congress plans to take up new legislation this fall.

Here are key differences between the former and current law, along with differences over proposed changes:

Previous law

Required a court warrant to intercept electronic communications carried by a U.S. wire or fiber-optic cable, even if both parties were based abroad.

2007 law

Phone calls and e-mails can be intercepted without a warrant if one or both parties are “reasonably believed” to be abroad and the subject of a national security or terrorism investigation.

Proposed law

€ Director of National Intelligence and Bush administration want to make the 2007 law permanent and add immunity from lawsuits for telecom companies that helped intelligence agencies carry out eavesdropping.

€ The ACLU and some congressional Democrats want some judicial review of eavesdropping on communications to or from the USA. They oppose lawsuit immunity for telecom companies.
By Richard Willing, USA TODAY

By David Jackson, USA TODAY
Saying older surveillance laws were “dangerously out of date,” President Bush pressed anew Wednesday for Congress to pass permanent legislation that allows intelligence agencies to carry out warrantless surveillance on all communications of a foreign terror suspect.

Legislation passed by Congress last month “has helped close a critical intelligence gap, allowing us to collect important foreign intelligence and information about terrorist plots,” Bush said after he was briefed at the National Security Agency.

“The problem is the law expires on February 1 — that’s 135 days from today. The threat from al-Qaeda is not going to expire in 135 days,” Bush said.

Bush’s comments come one day after the nation’s intelligence chief told Congress that fewer than 100 Americans have become surveillance targets because they were initially overheard communicating with foreign terror suspects.

“How many Americans’ phones have been tapped without a court order? The answer is none,” Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told the House Judiciary Committee.

The law that expires in February allows intelligence agencies to carry out warrantless surveillance on all communications of a foreign terror suspect, even if a U.S.-based person is on one end of the call.

Congressional Democrats say the new law’s wording could promote warrantless spying on Americans. The law is written “so broadly and loosely that it permits the government to intercept … anyone even thought to be abroad,” Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers of Michigan said at Tuesday’s hearing.

The House Intelligence Committee is expected to begin considering changes to the warrantless wiretapping law next month.

McConnell and the Bush administration also want the law expanded to include immunity from lawsuits for telecom companies that helped intelligence agencies carry out spying.

Democrats, including Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, want stricter rules covering surveillance of Americans.

“These restrictions would impede the flow of information that helps us protect our people,” Bush said Wednesday. “These restrictions would reopen gaps in our intelligence that we had just closed.”

At NSA, Bush received private briefings from intelligence officials and mingled with employees in the National Threat Operations Center. While cameras and reporters were in the room, the large video screens that lined the walls displayed unclassified information on computer crime and signal intelligence.

Along one wall at NSA is a sign that says, “We won’t back down. We never have. We never will.”

Contributing: Richard Willing; Associated Press