A group of civil liberties and other advocacy groups are urging supporters to contact the U.S. Congress as it moves ahead to approve an electronic surveillance program run through the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Amendment Foundation and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers are among the groups encouraging voters to voice opposition to two bills that would authorize the NSA program. Both bills are scheduled to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday morning.
Opponents say the program, reportedly used to spy on U.S. residents as well as foreigners, is illegal because the NSA has conducted surveillance without court-approved warrants. Officials in U.S. President George Bush’s administration and some congressional Republicans contend that the program is legal and limited in scope.
“This is an unprecedented expansion of government surveillance,” said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney at the EFF, which is spearheading a lawsuit against AT&T for allegedly participating in the NSA program. “We’ve encountered the ultimate nightmare scenario as far as electronic privacy is concerned: an unchecked executive branch.”
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the program in August, calling it effective and legal. “It is a very narrow program … focused on communications with al-Qaida where one end of the phone call [or] communication is foreign, outside of the United States,” he said in a press conference. “It has been reviewed by a number of lawyers within the administration, including lawyers out at the NSA, including lawyers at the Department of Justice.”
Numerous U.S. intelligence officials have said the program is effective in tracking terrorist activity, Gonzales added. The legislation in Congress to authorize the program isn’t necessary, but the Bush administration is working with bill sponsors, he said.
Both Judiciary Committee bills would establish congressional oversight for terrorist surveillance programs conducted by the NSA or other government agencies. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman, would largely give the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court jurisdiction for any terrorist surveillance programs. The court would have to approve new surveillance programs, as it has for past U.S. government surveillance operations.
The second bill, sponsored by Ohio Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, would allow the U.S. president to authorize surveillance programs for up to 45 days without a court order. The U.S. attorney general can then review the program and continue it for another 45 days without a court order.
The DeWine bill would require that the president report the programs to congressional subcommittees, but it also would allow a 15-year prison sentence and a US $1 million fine for anyone who leaks the details of secret surveillance programs.
DeWine, in an August statement, called the NSA program a “critical tool to prevent America from being attacked.”
The DeWine bill would retroactively approve the NSA program, while the Specter bill would not, Bankston said. Lawsuits targeting the program, now moving forward in Michigan and California, could be stalled if Congress passes a retroactive bill, he said. “Let’s let the courts finish the job,” he added.
-Grant Gross, IDG News Service (Washington Bureau)
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