The House of Representatives has approved legislation providing a legal framework for President Bush's electronic surveillance program which he says is vital to preventing new terrorist attacks. The House approval comes as the Republican-controlled Congress races to complete key legislative priorities.
The once-secret program approved by President Bush after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks sparked fierce debate across the United States about personal freedoms and the war on terrorism.
Monitoring telephone and electronic communication between people in the United States and those in other countries, the program effectively bypassed the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act [FISA] that required authorities to seek court warrants within 72 hours.
With only a day before scheduled adjournment, the House debated a measure by New Mexico Republican Heather Wilson aimed at updating the 1978 law. She responded to Democrats who said the measure will result in historic reversals of American civil liberties.
"We have set in place rules of the road, in the wake of a terrorist attack [or] when there is an attack upon the United States, or when an attack is imminent in the U.S," she said. "Rules of the road that are reasonable, that are constitutional, that protect civil liberties, and that also keep us save in the event of terrorist attack."
Adam Schiff, whose bipartisan alternative measure was disallowed by Republicans, summed up what he said is the key problem with the measure.
"Do we want to entrust to the government and say you can surveil an American here at home without any court supervision? We are going to take entire programs off the books," he said. "We are going to embody a philosophy that says to the government, we trust you, we don't need a check and balance."
The House-passed law would enable the president to authorize surveillance but require expanded notification of House and Senate leaders and intelligence committees in both chambers. He would also have to certify that an attack is imminent, provide follow up information about individuals or groups thought to be involved, and renew this certification every three months or after an attack.
Republicans such as Arizona's Trent Franks say these and other changes are required to gain the advantage over terrorists.
"If we fail to use our best and critical intelligence mechanisms to fight and defeat terrorists in these critical days our children and grandchildren will pay an unspeakable price," he said.
While the House was able to pass its version of surveillance legislation, chances appear dim that a similar version will come to a vote in the Senate.
That means President Bush would not be able to sign a final reconciled bill on one of his key national security priorities, before members of Congress leave to campaign for the November 7 legislative election.