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Bush Seeks Changes in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

The Bush administration is seeking to update a law governing U.S. foreign intelligence surveillance. But members of the Democratic majority in Congress are signaling they may be reluctant to approve the proposed changes because they have concerns about a controversial administration wiretapping program. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The Bush administration is asking Congress to approve changes to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. The proposed modifications would give the government more power to gather foreign intelligence information. Supporters say the changes would bring the law up to date with changes in new technology, including e-mail and wireless communications.

Michael McConnell, director of National Intelligence, urged lawmakers to amend the law at a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

"It will help our intelligence professionals, if passed, protect the nation by preventing terrorist acts inside the United States," he said.

But many congressional Democrats appear reluctant to expand the government's surveillance powers.

They have questions about the legality of a wiretapping program established after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and say the administration has yet to adequately respond to their concerns.

The program had been set up to allow the National Security Agency to monitor, without court warrants, phone calls and e-mails between suspected terrorists overseas and people in the United States.

President Bush defended the program as a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism, but many in Congress argued it violated the FISA law, which requires warrants.

In January, the administration agreed to have the wiretapping program subject to review by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court.

But that was not enough to satisfy some skeptical lawmakers.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas to the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney's office and the Department of Justice for documents relating to the wiretapping program.

Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, discussed his concerns in a recent NBC Meet the Press program.

"The White House has chosen confrontation over cooperation, and I think that is unfortunate," he said. "Nobody on my committee, Republican or Democratic, is trying to subpoena the operations of what has been done in wiretapping terrorists. What we are asking is, what was the legal justification they tried to follow, when for years, they were wiretapping ordinary Americans and everybody else without a warrant?"

The administration has until July 18 to respond to subpoena.

Some Democrats are suggesting they would be reluctant to approve the administration's proposed changes in the foreign intelligence surveillance law until the White House hands over more information about the wiretapping program.

"Where's the transparency as to the presidential authorizations for this closed program? Where's the transparency as to the attorney general's opinion of this closed program? That's a pretty big 'we're not going to tell you' in this new atmosphere of trust we're trying to build," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat.

But there are some lawmakers who argue that in the wake of the car bombing plots in London and Glasgow, Scotland, updating the surveillance law is essential. They argue - as does the administration - that the proposed changes to the law include adequate safeguards to protect the privacy rights of Americans.

Among them is Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who calls himself an independent Democrat. He addressed the issue in a recent ABC This Week program.

"We are in a partisan gridlock over the question of whether the American government can listen into conversations, or follow e-mail trails of non-American citizens," he said. "That is wrong. We have got to solve that problem and pass the law to give the people working for us the ability to protect us."

Senator Lieberman is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.