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US House committees advance strengthened surveillance oversight bill

[JURIST] The US House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Wednesday voted to advance the RESTORE Act of 2007 ("Responsible Electronic Surveillance That is Overseen, Reviewed and Effective Act of 2007") [draft text, PDF; summary, PDF], introduced [JURIST report] by House democrats on Tuesday, with several minor changes. The RESTORE Act would replace the temporary Protect America Act [S 1927 materials], signed in August, as the law governing foreign surveillance. The RESTORE Act permits eavesdropping on foreign targets operating outside the US, but if the surveillance targets are thought to be communicating with Americans, the government must apply for an "umbrella" court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) [official backgrounder] to conduct surveillance for up to one year. In an emergency, the government may begin surveillance immediately, but must apply for a FISC court order within seven days and receive FISC approval within 45 days. The House committees added several amendments [press release], including one to strengthen the standard used to determine when a FISA warrant is required, and a second requiring the FISC to review compliance with its orders rather than merely authorizing it to do so.

Notably, the House committees failed to adopt an amendment sought by the Bush administration [JURIST report] granting retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies for participating in the NSA domestic surveillance program [JURIST news archive]. Last year, USA Today reported that the NSA had been collecting phone records from major telephone companies AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth [corporate websites] to study the calling patterns of millions of Americans in an effort to detect terrorist activity in violation of telecommunications privacy laws. On Wednesday, Bush also asked that the Protect America Act, which dilutes FISC involvement in monitoring domestic surveillance activities, be made permanent. AP has more. The New York Times has additional coverage.

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