A U.S. House of Representatives Committee has approved a controversial bill that would broaden the U.S. government’s ability to conduct electronic surveillance on U.S. residents by making it easier for federal law enforcement officials to get court-issued warrants.
The Electronic Modernization Surveillance Act, opposed by several privacy groups, would also allow federal law enforcement officials to spy on U.S. residents for up to 90 days without a court order in the period after a terrorist attack. The House Judiciary Committee approved the legislation Wednesday by a 20-16 vote, with all committee Democrats present voting against the bill.
The bill, sponsored by Representative Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, would reduce the amount of information required from federal agents applying for a wiretapping warrant from the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The bill would clarify that the U.S. government can seek wiretaps on any type of electronic communication, not just telephone- or radio-spectrum-based communication.
Republicans praised the bill, saying it will help the U.S. government fight terrorism. The bill will provide the U.S. intelligence agencies “greater agility and flexibility as they try to thwart our determined and dangerous terrorist enemies,” Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said in a statement.
The full House is expected to vote on the bill by the end of the month. The committee’s action comes after U.S. President George Bush called on Congress to approve a controversial electronic surveillance program conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA has conducted the program, reportedly targeting U.S. residents speaking with foreigners who have suspected terrorism connections, without getting court warrants.
Bush has asked Congress to authorize the NSA program to ward off multiple court challenges against it. In August, a U.S. judge in Michigan ruled the NSA program is illegal and must be halted. The Bush administration has appealed that ruling.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved three surveillance bills last week. The Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy and civil liberties advocacy group, called the Wilson bill and the Senate’s National Security Surveillance Act two of the worst bills now in Congress.
“Couched in the seemingly laudable terms of ’modernization,’ the bills would radically undermine the privacy of innocent Americans — not just by legitimizing the administration’s warrantless surveillance programs — but by granting this and future administrations even broader authority to spy on Americans in the United States without judicial review,” the CDT said on its website.
-Grant Gross, IDG News Service (Washington Bureau)
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