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Bush urges Congress to update surveillance law

[JURIST] US President George W. Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address [transcript; recorded audio] that he wants to modernize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) [text; JURIST news archive] to meet threats from terrorists who can now use cell phones and the Internet to communicate. Bush urged Congress to pass new legislation, saying:

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- also known as FISA -- provides a critical legal foundation that allows our intelligence community to collect this information while protecting the civil liberties of Americans. But this important law was written in 1978, and it addressed the technologies of that era. This law is badly out of date -- and Congress must act to modernize it

Today we face sophisticated terrorists who use disposable cell phones and the Internet to communicate with each other, recruit operatives, and plan attacks on our country. Technologies like these were not available when FISA was passed nearly 30 years ago, and FISA has not kept up with new technological developments. ...

To fix this problem, my Administration has proposed a bill that would modernize the FISA statute. This legislation is the product of months of discussion with members of both parties in the House and the Senate -- and it includes four key reforms: First, it brings FISA up to date with the changes in communications technology that have taken place over the past three decades. Second, it seeks to restore FISA to its original focus on protecting the privacy interests of people inside the United States, so we don't have to obtain court orders to effectively collect foreign intelligence about foreign targets located in foreign locations. Third, it allows the government to work more efficiently with private-sector entities like communications providers, whose help is essential. And fourth, it will streamline administrative processes so our intelligence community can gather foreign intelligence more quickly and more effectively, while protecting civil liberties.

Our intelligence community warns that under the current statute, we are missing a significant amount of foreign intelligence that we should be collecting to protect our country. Congress needs to act immediately to pass this bill, so that our national security professionals can close intelligence gaps and provide critical warning time for our country.
Critics of the Bush administration have expressed concern that changes to the law would enable the executive branch to spy on US residents. Under the current procedure authorized by FISA, the US Justice Department (DOJ) must seek a warrant from the court established under the law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) [FJC backgrounder], before using a wiretap.

Lawmakers have extensively debated [JURIST report] the issue over the past few years. In April, Bush proposed amendments [JURIST report] to FISA that would subject more people to electronic surveillance. The proposed legislation would allow US intelligence agencies to monitor foreign nationals, including those with US permanent residence status, without FISC. The proposed amendments also seek to extend the life of warrants issued by the FISC from 120 days to one year. AP has more.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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