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Two US Congressional Panels Approve Revisions to Wiretap Law


Two U.S. congressional panels have approved legislation that would restrict the government's power to eavesdrop on foreign terrorism suspects. President Bush expressed his opposition to the measure, saying it would weaken U.S. intelligence agencies' ability to crackdown on terrorists. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The Democratic-led House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees each voted to send the bill to the full House for an expected vote next week.

The legislation would roll back some of the expanded powers that Congress granted the Bush administration back in August when it approved the Protect America Act - a measure that amends 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to address new technologies, including e-mail and cell phones.

The Protect America Act, which expires in February, gives the attorney general and the director of national intelligence greater powers to authorize surveillance - sparking concerns among critics that the law could undermine Americans' civil liberties.

Under the revisions approved Wednesday, a special intelligence court would have a greater role in reviewing government requests for surveillance. The measure would require that intelligence agencies get a court order to monitor communications between suspected terrorists overseas and people in the United States, and it would mandate quarterly audits of the surveillance program by the Justice Department inspector general.

Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York, a member of the Judiciary Committee, supports the bill.

"It will provide reasonable secret court oversight to ensure that when our government starts spying on Americans, it does so lawfully, by getting a warrant from the secret foreign intelligence court," he said. "It puts an end to this administration's well-worn 'trust me' routine."

Republican critics, including President Bush, argue that requiring the government to seek court approval of some surveillance requests will hinder its ability to hunt down terrorists.

Mr. Bush told reporters he opposes the proposed revisions to the Protect America Act.

"The Protect America Act is a vital tool in stopping the terrorists - and it would be a grave mistake for Congress to weaken this tool," he said.

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, argues otherwise.

"To those who would claim that this bill is weak on terrorism, I only have this to say: protecting the civil rights and liberties of Americans does not show weakness, but strength," he said. "What the terrorists fear most is our Constitution and our values, and that is what this bill protects."

But the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, is concerned that those protections could end up benefiting terrorists.

"In certain cases, there may be more liberties extended to radical jihadists, people like [Osama] bin Laden, than what we give to American citizens," he said.

The provisions of the House bill would expire in December 2009.

The legislation does not include a provision requested by the administration that would grant retroactive immunity to U.S. telecommunications companies that cooperated with the administration's warrantless wiretapping program following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

President Bush says he plans to work with Republicans and Democrats in the House to craft a bill he can support.