WASHINGTON -- Two Congressional panels yesterday rejected President Bush's request to renew without added restrictions his administration's broad eavesdropping authority, and instead adopted a measure that gives federal judges greater oversight authority over foreign electronic surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency.
The bill approved by the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees was along straight party lines, just as they split to defeat the administration's proposal.
The legislation, sponsored by Reps. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Silvestre Reyes of Texas, the chairmen of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, respectively, conspicuously did not contain two provisions demanded by the White House. One would have provided retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that had helped the NSA to conduct eavesdropping without warrants. A second would have made the surveillance program permanent. Instead, the legislation expires in two years.
As the administration has sought, the legislation provides authority for the government to obtain "basket" or "umbrella" warrants for bundles of overseas communications. But White House and Justice Department officials nonetheless criticized the legislation because of the greater authority it gives to a special foreign intelligence surveillance court.
Shortly before the first votes were cast in Congress yesterday morning, President Bush appeared on the South Lawn of the White House to attack the House legislation, saying that it "would take us backward." He asked instead for an extension of a law adopted last August, the Protect America Act, which expires in February. That measure significantly reduced the role of the foreign intelligence court and broadened the security agency's ability to listen to foreign-based communications without court warrants.
"Terrorists in faraway lands are plotting and planning new ways to kill Americans," Bush said. "The security of our country and the safety of our citizens depend on learning about their plans."
The legislation heads to the floor of the House, where it is expected to be approved. The Senate has not considered a companion bill, although administration officials, as well as some civil liberties and intelligence experts, say the White House might have more allies in that chamber.