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Specter introduces new domestic surveillance bill

[JURIST] US Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) [official website; JURIST news archive], outgoing chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee [official website], has introduced a new bill, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Oversight and Resource Enhancement Act of 2006 [PDF text], that would authorize domestic surveillance [JURIST news archive] of suspected terrorists. Specter's new proposal is a last-ditch attempt to push through legislation [JURIST report] during the current lame-duck session of Congress allowing a form of the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance program to continue. While the House of Representatives passed [JURIST report] the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act [HR 5825 text, PDF] in late September, the Senate version, the National Security Surveillance Act of 2006 [S 3876 materials], the product of a compromise between the White House and Specter [JURIST report], stalled [JURIST report] in Congress.

Specter's new bill would make some changes in existing law but would not grant as much latitude to the government as the House version. Specter has proposed:

  • Requiring the US Supreme Court to review all appeals of cases challenging the legality of the domestic surveillance program acknowledged by the president last December;

  • Requiring the US Attorney General to provide semi-annual reports to the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees to "fully inform" them of any electronic surveillance undertaken without a court order. Only chairmen of each congressional intelligence committee would have access to the documentation;

  • Allowing the government to conduct warrantless taps of communications between parties outside the US, even if Americans are involved in those exchanges;

  • Extending the deadline from 72 hours to 168 hours for authorities to make after-the-fact applications for warrants in "emergency" situations; and

  • Authorizing the addition of lawyers and judges to the various agencies charged with implementing and overseeing the surveillance program.
Last week, Bush urged lawmakers [transcript] to pass the Terrorist Surveillance Act, which he called an "important priority in the war on terror." Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) [official website; JURIST news archive], who is expected to take over as Judiciary Committee chairman, has said that any legislation that would authorize domestic surveillance of terrorists must contain "adequate checks and balances."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] has urged the Senate to reject [press release] legislation authorizing warrantless domestic wiretaps. Earlier this week, the group asked [JURIST report] a federal appeals court to uphold a lower court ruling [brief, PDF; press release] that the surveillance program is unconstitutional. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said Tuesday that the various legislative proposals would put "the privacy of innocent Americans at great risk. Senators must remember: Americans are not the enemy. This is one issue on which the lame-duck Congress should 'Just Say No!' " CNET News has more.

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