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US intelligence chief urges replacement surveillance bill with telecom immunity

[JURIST] A new foreign intelligence surveillance bill is needed to ensure that the US intelligence community has "the agility and the speed that we had before" to capture terrorist communications in the war on terror, US Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell [official profile] said Sunday in an interview [transcript] with Fox News Sunday. The temporary Protect America Act [S 1927 materials; JURIST report] expired on Saturday without an agreement in Congress on replacement legislation. The Senate passed [JURIST report] the FISA Amendments Act [S 2248 materials] last week, but the House of Representatives did not approve the bill before leaving for a 12-day recess. McConnell said the main issue is providing a legal framework to encourage private telecommunication carriers to turn over information and data to the intelligence community: "there's uncertainty because the law has expired and the law of August, the Protect America Act, allowed us to compel — compel — support from a private carrier. That's now expired."

The version approved by the Senate provides immunity for telecommunications companies [JURIST report] from lawsuits related to their participation in the NSA warrantless surveillance program [JURIST news archive]. The House version [HR 3773 materials] of the legislation, approved [JURIST report] in November, does not include the immunity provisions. The FISA Amendments Act, supplementary to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) [text], would make it easier for the government to monitor foreign phone calls and e-mails that pass through the United States. In the absence of new legislation, the government can get an order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor calls and e-mails, set up under FISA. Amendment supporters have rejected this option, saying it creates too much red tape. Strong critics of the legislation, including Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) [official website], have deplored its retroactive grant of immunity to participating telecom companies as an effective endorsement of warrantless wiretapping contrary to the rule of law [transcript; recorded video]. AP has more.

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