Congress agrees on overhaul of wiretap law

Law to expand government's spy powers


In the wiretapping program approved by Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House asserted that the president had the constitutional authority to act outside the courts in allowing the National Security Agency to focus on the international communications of Americans suspected of having ties to terrorists and that Congress had implicitly authorized that power when it voted to use military force against Al Qaeda.

Among other important provisions in the 114-page plan, Democrats also pointed to requirements that the inspectors general of several agencies review the security agency's wiretapping program, that the government obtain individual court orders to wiretap Americans who are outside the United States and that the secret court overseeing wiretaps give advance approval to the government's procedures for wiretapping operations.

Under a temporary plan that Congress approved last year, the court had to approve those procedures only months after wiretapping had begun.

The wiretapping plan agreed upon Thursday would expire at the end of 2012, unless Congress renewed it.

The proposal also seeks to plug what the Bush administration maintained was a dangerous loophole by no longer requiring individual warrants for wiretapping purely foreign communications, like phone calls and e-mail messages that pass through American telecommunications switches. The government would now be allowed to use broad warrants to eavesdrop on large groups of foreign targets at once.

In targeting and wiretapping Americans, the administration would have to get individual court orders from the intelligence court, but in ''exigent'' or emergency circumstances it would be able to go ahead for at least seven days without a court order if it asserted that ''intelligence important to the national security of the United States may be lost.''

White House officials said that the new emergency provisions applied only to foreign wiretapping, but Democratic officials said they interpreted the proposal to apply to domestic surveillance operations as well.

Under the current law, the government can conduct an emergency wiretap for only three days, but Democrats maintained that the new seven-day allowance included tougher standards for the government to meet in asserting an emergency.

The arcane details of the proposal amount to a major overhaul of the landmark surveillance law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Congress passed in 1978 after the abuses of the Watergate era. But much of the debate over the bill in the past six months has been dominated by the separate question of whether to protect the phone companies from legal liability for their role in the eavesdropping program.

On that score, the bipartisan proposal marks a clear victory for the White House and the phone companies.