boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

House votes with Bush on surveillance

Bill expands eavesdropping powers in US

WASHINGTON -- The House handed President Bush a victory last night, voting to expand the government's abilities to eavesdrop without warrants on foreign suspects whose communications pass through the United States.

The 227-183 vote, which followed the Senate's approval Friday, sends the bill to Bush for his signature. He had urged Congress to approve it, saying yesterday, "Protecting America is our most solemn obligation."

Early today, in other action, the House approved modest changes to Bush's record Pentagon budget proposal, but Democrats signaled plans to resume a more contentious debate over the Iraq war after the August recess.

The House's $459.6 billion version of the defense budget, approved on a 395-13 vote, would add money for equipment for the National Guard and Reserve, provide for 12,000 additional soldiers and Marines, and increase spending for defense healthcare and military housing.

The measure does not include Bush's 2008 funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats say they want to consider that money in separate legislation in September.

The administration said the eavesdropping measure is needed to speed the National Security Agency's ability to intercept phone calls, e-mails, and other communications involving foreign nationals "reasonably believed to be outside the United States." Civil liberties groups and many Democrats said it goes too far, possibly enabling the government to wiretap US residents communicating with overseas parties without adequate oversight from courts or Congress.

The bill updates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It gives the government leeway to intercept, without warrants, communications between foreigners that are routed through equipment in the United States, if foreign intelligence information is at stake. Bush describes the effort as an antiterrorist program, but the bill is not limited to terror suspects and could have wider applications, some lawmakers said.

The government has long had substantial powers to intercept purely foreign communications that do not touch US soil.

If a US resident becomes the chief target of surveillance, the government would have to obtain a warrant from a special court.

Congressional Democrats won a few concessions in negotiations earlier in the week. New wiretaps must be approved by the director of national intelligence and the attorney general, not just the attorney general. Congress has battled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on several issues, and some Democrats have accused him of perjury.

The new law will expire in six months unless Congress renews it. The administration wanted the changes to be permanent.

Many congressional Democrats wanted tighter restrictions on government surveillance, but yielded in the face of Bush's veto threats and the impending August recess.

"This bill would grant the attorney general the ability to wiretap anybody, any place, any time without court review, without any checks and balances," said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, during the debate preceding the vote.

Republicans disputed her description. "It does nothing to tear up the Constitution," said Representative Dan Lungren, Republican of California.

The administration began pressing for changes to the law after a recent ruling by the special court.

That decision barred the government from eavesdropping without warrants on foreign suspects whose messages were being routed through US communications carriers, including Internet sites.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES