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Bush signs controversial wiretap bill, calls for permanent fix

  • Story Highlights
  • New law gives AG right to OK surveillance of suspected terrorists overseas
  • The director of national intelligence will also have this authority
  • The bill passed Congress over the weekend
  • Critics say the new law makes it possible to abuse Americans' civil liberties
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush signed a controversial bill Sunday that temporarily revises federal electronic surveillance laws.

"This law gives our intelligence professionals this greater flexibility while closing a dangerous gap in our intelligence-gathering activities that threatened to weaken our defenses," Bush said in a written statement issued by the White House.

The new law gives the attorney general or the director of national intelligence the authority to approve surveillance of suspected terrorists overseas.

The bill went through Congress over the weekend after heavy pressure from the Bush administration, which demanded that lawmakers remain in session until it passed.

Congress responded by approving the revisions for six months.

The measure updates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs electronic surveillance in intelligence cases. Video Watch how the House was pressured to pass the bill »

"Over the past three decades, this law has not kept pace with revolutionary changes in technology," Bush said. "As a result, our intelligence professionals have told us that they are missing significant intelligence information that they need to protect the country."

Bush sought changes to FISA after a classified ruling by a court set up under the law to hear wiretap requests.

That ruling concluded that FISA required a warrant for eavesdropping on communications between people overseas because so many phone calls and e-mails are sent through U.S. switching centers, U.S. officials said.

The administration initially proposed to give the authority only to the attorney general, but agreed to add the director of national intelligence after Democrats objected to putting more power into the hands of embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Top Democratic and Republican senators have accused Gonzales of giving misleading testimony to Congress about a U.S. no-warrant eavesdropping program, the existence of which Bush acknowledged in 2005.

Critics say the program -- which included the monitoring of communications into and out of the United States by people suspected of having links to the al Qaeda terrorist network -- violated FISA.

FISA was passed in 1978 after Watergate-era abuses by intelligence and law enforcement agencies that were wiretapping within the country. Early this year, the Bush administration agreed to submit the program to the FISA court.

Bush insists the program protects the civil liberties of Americans.

But Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union objected to provisions in the GOP-backed bill that grant the attorney general and the director of national intelligence the authority to approve all wiretaps -- even if one party is in the United States -- with minimal court oversight.

Bush said Congress will need to pass a more comprehensive reform bill when it reconvenes in September after its August recess. Congress will be called to address what Bush called "meaningful liability protection" for those who took part in the eavesdropping program.

The ACLU says the administration's proposals would effectively "gut" FISA. And Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the third most powerful Democrat in the House, said lawmakers "are not going to leave Alberto Gonzales as the gatekeeper on American civil liberties."


"That's the fundamental problem, and we're going to fix it when we come back," Emanuel told reporters Sunday.

"We had to do it. We did what we needed to do. The Democrats are united in fixing this flawed law." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

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