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Gonzales an issue in surveillance law upgrade

  • Story Highlights
  • White House, Congress trying to modernize law before August recess
  • Democrats, Republican have reservations about attorney general having authority
  • Director of national intelligence cites "urgency" to close "critical gaps"
  • Panel's ranking Republican says warrant process is backlogged
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- White House officials and Democratic congressional leaders are still trying to work out differences to modernize the law on monitoring communications between suspected terrorists.

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National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell says the rules for monitoring communications need to change.

But beyond technical and legal issues, embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is one of the sticking points.

The Bush administration wants Congress to act on the proposal before it leaves on its August recess at the end of the week, citing concerns about a heightened terror threat.

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and congressional Democrats have exchanged proposals that would amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, and allow for surveillance of foreign targets.

The Bush administration wants FISA updated because terrorists are using technology to communicate -- such as the Internet and cellular phones -- that didn't exist when it was enacted in 1978. Video See Bush state his case for modernizing the law »

In a July 27 letter to the congressional leadership obtained by CNN, McConnell urged quick action because of the "urgency of the situation" and the need to close "critical gaps in our intelligence capability in the short term."

One of the sticking points involves intercepted communications where one end turns out to be in the United States.

The DNI proposal gives the attorney general the authority to approve and monitor the surveillance. However, the Democrats want the FISA court -- the special panel that has to approve any wiretaps involving U.S. persons -- to oversee the eavesdropping and authorize warrants when there is a pattern of calls from a foreign target to the United States.

Democrats -- and at least one leading Republican -- don't want to extend that power to Gonzales, who is embroiled in disputes with Congress over his testimony over government surveillance and the firings of U.S. attorneys last year that critics say were politically motivated.

In a hearing into the latter controversy Thursday, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said giving Gonzales authority to approve surveillance "would be very difficult to do."

"I think it would be preferable not to have the attorney general involved," Specter said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said, "It is not wise to expand the authority of this attorney general."

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri., the ranking Republican member of the Intelligence Committee, defended giving the responsibility to the attorney general and added the FISA warrant process is backlogged and takes too long.

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Bond said the Democratic proposal would "impair the ability" of the intelligence community to protect the United States from its enemies.

The proposed changes represent a narrow reform of the overall FISA Act. A more extensive update of the nearly 30-year-old law will be considered after Congress' monthlong recess. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Pam Benson and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.

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