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(photo credit: AP)
President George W. Bush wants Congress to modernize a law that governs how intelligence agencies monitor the communications of suspected terrorists.
"This law is badly out of date," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, provides a legal foundation that allows information about terrorists' communications to be collected without violating civil liberties.
Democrats want to ensure that any changes do not give the executive branch unfettered surveillance powers.
Bush noted that terrorists now use disposable cell phones and the Internet to communicate, recruit operatives and plan attacks; such tools were not available when FISA was passed nearly 30 years ago. He also cited a recently released intelligence estimate that concluded al-Qaida is using its growing strength in the Middle East to plot attacks on US soil.
"Our intelligence community warns that under the current statute, we are missing a significant amount of foreign intelligence that we should be collecting to protect our country," Bush said. "Congress needs to act immediately to pass this bill, so that our national security professionals can close intelligence gaps and provide critical warning time for our country."
Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat, said Bush was trying to exploit the threat from al-Qaida to push the bill. Feingold said the measure was an "egregious power grab that includes broad new powers that have nothing to do with bringing FISA up to date."
The 1978 law set up a court that meets in secret to review applications from the FBI, the National Security Agency and other agencies for warrants to wiretap or search the homes of people in the United States in terrorist or espionage cases.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush authorized the NSA to spy on calls between people in the US and suspected terrorists abroad without FISA court warrants. The administration said it needed to act more quickly than the court could. It also said the president had inherent authority under the Constitution to order warrantless domestic spying.
After the program became public and was challenged in court, Bush put it under FISA court supervision this year.
The national intelligence director, in a letter Wednesday to the House intelligence committee, stressed the need to be able to collect intelligence about foreign terrorists overseas. Mike McConnell said intelligence agencies should be able to do that without requirements imposed by an "out of date" law.
"Simply put, in a significant number of cases, we are in the unfortunate position of having to obtain court orders to effectively collect foreign intelligence about foreign targets located overseas," he wrote the committee chairman, Rep. Silvestre Reyes.
Reyes said Saturday that the committee is intently focused on the issue.
"If changes to the law are required, we are prepared to do so," Reyes said. "We are actively working with the administration on any emergency requirements they may have. However, we want to avoid repeating the mistakes made by rushing the Patriot Act into law."
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, contends the White House is asking for more power to conduct warrantless domestic and international surveillance.
"The administration claims the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must be 'modernized.' Actually, it needs to be followed," she said. "The reality is, their proposal would gut FISA."
The ACLU said the legislation backed by the administration would give immunity from criminal prosecution and civil liability for the telecommunication companies that participate in the NSA program. The ACLU urged lawmakers to find out the full extent of current intelligence gathering under FISA before making changes.
"The only thing more outrageous than the administration's call for even more unfettered power is a Congress that would consider giving it to them," Frederickson said.
The House Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner, said Democrats are delaying necessary changes.
"Rather than learning the lessons of September 11 - that we need to break down the bureaucratic impediments to intelligence collection and analysis - Democrats have stonewalled Republican attempts to modernize FISA and close the terrorist loophole," he said Saturday.