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US Congress Approves Anti-Terror Bill to Intercept Phone Calls, Emails


The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation authorizing temporary changes to a U.S. electronic surveillance program to allow more flexibility to intercept communications overseas. VOA's Dan Robinson reports that approval by a vote of 227 to 183, following a Senate vote on Friday, sent the bill to President Bush.

The revisions were a key priority for President Bush and the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, against the background of the most recent National Intelligence Estimate saying al-Qaida was reconstituting itself and was still determined to attack the United States.

In recent weeks, the administration and congressional Republicans pressed for the change in response to what it called a dangerous gap in surveillance capabilities.

This was triggered by what news reports say was a ruling by a judge that the government had exceeded its authority in surveillance of communications overseas passing through electronic centers in the United States.

The legislation authorizes for six months the National Security Agency to intercept, without a court order, communications between people in the United States and foreign targets overseas. The Bush administration would have to demonstrate to a special court that a surveillance request only targeted individuals outside the United States.

Under existing law called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the government must obtain court approval to conduct surveillance of suspected terrorists within the United States.

The Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Silvestre Reyes, rose to voice reluctant support, saying the bill was not ideal but was necessary. He said "I think it is important that all of us understand that under the current situation that our country faces, with the threat level being high, it is very important that we do everything that we can to keep the American people safe, to reassure people that this Congress is going to do everything it can to provide the administration the tools to keep us safe and secure."

However, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee reflected the concerns of other Democrats that the legislation will place the privacy of Americans at risk. Lee said, "What we are doing here tonight, we are shredding the Constitution, we are tearing up the Bill of Rights, because we are telling Americans that no matter what your business is you are subject to the unscrupulous, undisciplined, irresponsible scrutiny of the attorney general and others without a court intervention."

Republicans responded by noting that the legislation does not alter the requirement for special court approval to monitor communications of people in the United States, and asserting that surveillance law has not kept up with changes in technology.

Congressman Darrell Issa says terrorists would be emboldened if Congress failed to approve the changes.

"If the president doesn't sign this by tomorrow there will be plenty of terrorists who will take note of this, because they didn't think in fact we weren't able to listen to foreign callers who were calling into their terrorist cells," said Issa.

Though it authorizes revisions to surveillance law for only six months, after which Congress will review the issue again and craft new legislation, civil liberties groups have criticized lawmakers.

The American Civil Liberties Union accused Congress of giving in to pressure from the White House, saying the legislation fails to protect Americans communicating with people overseas.