Friday, September 29, 2006

House approves warrantless wiretapping

The House of Representatives has just approved the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act, a bill that would legitimize warrantless electronic surveillance of people within the US who are suspected of having "foreign intelligence information."

HR 5825 authorizes the President to conduct electronic surveillance without a court order for up to a year. The only requirements are that the surveillance is meant to acquire the "contents of communications of foreign powers" and that the Attorney General follows certain safeguard procedures. In order to authorize this type of surveillance, all that the president has to do is have his Attorney General certify in writing that the surveillance meets legal criteria.

The government also requires Internet service providers and other telecommunications companies to assist with any valid request for such surveillance—and they must protect the secrecy of the request. The government agrees to compensate providers for their time and equipment. If companies object to surveillance on a particular target, they are allowed to challenge the legality of the directive before the secret FISA court, where a judge is required to rule on the merit of the directive within 24 hours of being assigned the case.

The Senate has a competing bill in the works which differs significantly from the House version, so the shape of the legislation won't become clear until the bills are hammered out in committee. If what emerges bears any resemblance to the House bill, however, the judiciary will be all but removed from oversight of this kind of surveillance. Congress will be the only group receiving even limited information about how the surveillance is being used—will they have the political will to call out any abuses that might arise?

Via Ars Technica and NY TImes

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