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House Passes Terrorist Surveillance Bill

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September 29, 2006 | Kate Matus ((202) 226-7326) | comments

WASHINGTON – Wisconsin’s First District Congressman Paul Ryan voted yesterday in favor of legislation to update our nation’s foreign intelligence surveillance laws to make it easier to monitor terrorist communications and protect our country from attacks. The House passed this measure – H.R. 5825, the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act – last night by a vote of 232-191. 

The legislation amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was passed in 1978, to account for developments in technology and the changing nature of threats to our national security since that time. It establishes rules under which U.S. intelligence agencies may conduct targeted surveillance of terrorists’ communications and strengthens congressional oversight of such surveillance. The bill includes safeguards such as time limits, notification requirements, and reviews to protect the privacy of ordinary Americans who are not communicating with terrorists. 

“This bill sets the ground rules for our intelligence agencies so they can combat the threat of terrorism and work to prevent future attacks within the framework of our laws,” Ryan said. “We need the ability to listen in when someone is communicating with al Qaeda overseas and planning strikes against Americans. At the same time, Congress must exercise careful oversight to protect the privacy of innocent citizens and make sure that this surveillance is directed against terrorists and those who assist them.” 

Among the legislation’s highlights, H.R. 5825 would:

  • Make FISA’s definition of electronic surveillance technology-neutral, removing the outdated distinction between treatment of “wire” and “radio” communications, to ensure appropriate surveillance that places the focus on the person rather than the type of communication used.

  • Simplify the process of getting a FISA warrant, streamlining the FISA warrant application process to eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic paperwork requirements.

  • Update the definition of who is covered under FISA to ensure that electronic surveillance is narrowly focused on those who would harm the U.S.

  • Provide the President with the authority to collect electronic surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence information without a court order for up to 90 days after an armed attack or a terrorist attack, or in the face of an imminent threat to the safety of Americans.

    • Under current FISA law, the President may authorize this surveillance for 15 days, but only in the case of an armed attack where there is an explicit congressional declaration of war. This bill lengthens the timeframe under which this authority can be used when Congress declares war, and adds terrorist attacks and imminent threats to address the threats posed by a new kind of enemy.

    • If the President wants to use the new authority in the case of terrorist attacks or imminent threats, he must report to Congress and the courts on its usage.

    • In the case of a terrorist attack, it must be shown that there is a reasonable belief that the surveillance target is communicating with a known terrorist organization or its affiliates, and the terrorist organization and its affiliates responsible for the attack have been identified and notified to the Congress and the courts.

    • In the case of an imminent threat, it must be shown that there is a reasonable belief that the surveillance target is communicating with someone planning an attack, and the entities and affiliates responsible for the threat have been identified and notified to the Congress and the FISA courts.

    • In the case of a terrorist attack or in the face of an imminent threat, after the first 90 days has elapsed this authority can be extended for 90-day periods, but only upon certification to court and a report to the congressional Intelligence Committees each time.

  • Strengthen congressional oversight of the surveillance program through notification and reporting requirements. The bill amends current law to provide authority to the Chairman and Ranking Member of each Intelligence Committee to notify all members of the committee or individual members of the committee of reporting of intelligence activities received under the National Security Act. The legislation also requires that an annual report on the effectiveness and use of minimization procedures to protect the 4th Amendment rights of Americans be submitted to House and Senate Intelligence Committees through December 2009. 

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