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US House Passes Revisions to Wiretap Law

The Democratically controlled U.S. House of Representatives late Thursday passed legislation on a 227 - 189 vote to restrict the government's power to eavesdrop on foreign terrorism suspects. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

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 the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to address new technologies, including e-mail and cell phones.

The Protect America Act had given 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 by the House, 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.

"The bill rejects groundless claims of inherent executive authority," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "There are those who claim that the president has inherent authority under the Constitution to do whatever he wishes. Long ago, our Founders rejected that concept in founding our country. We must do that as well."

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

In a written statement, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said the legislation would dangerously weaken the US ability to protect the nation from foreign threats.

Congressman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan is the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

"It now seems that the majority is determined to move a bill intended to make political statements rather than to give intelligence professionals the tools that they need to protect our country," he said.

The legislation, known as the RESTORE Act (Responsible Surveillance-Overseen, Reviewed and Effective), 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.

Congressman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"Importantly, the RESTORE Act has no retroactive immunity for telecommunications carriers who may have assisted the government in conducting unlawful surveillance on Americans," he said.

Dozens of civil lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies since September 11, 2001.

Republicans believe an immunity provision is crucial to the bill. Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas is the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

"These companies deserve our thanks, not a flurry of harassing lawsuits," said Smith.

President Bush agrees, and has vowed to veto any bill that does not contain immunity language.

Legislation similar to the House version is pending before the Senate, although senators are divided on the issue of immunity for telecommunications companies and will have to resolve the matter during Senate floor debate in the coming weeks.