By Tom Brune
Senate panel OKs warrantless wiretaps
Sun Sep 17, 2006 01:59

Senate panel OKs warrantless wiretaps
By Tom Brune
Tribune Newspapers: Newsday

September 14, 2006
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0609140132sep14,1,736944.story

WASHINGTON -- A Republican-controlled Senate panel on Wednesday approved legislation that would authorize President Bush's controversial warrantless wiretapping program in return for his pledge to submit it for a review by a secret court.

In a 10-8 party-line vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent the bill backed by the White House to the full Senate.

With 2 1/2 weeks before Congress recesses for the Nov. 7 elections, the White House has made it a priority to win approval of a highly secretive National Security Agency program to intercept calls and e-mails between the U.S. and overseas in its hunt for terrorists.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), committee chairman and the bill's sponsor, said his legislation provided the best chance for the Supreme Court to rule on the president's authority to unilaterally order the program. But under the bill, an appeal to the court would be up to the discretion of the administration, the White House and legal experts said Wednesday.

Specter's bill would broadly revamp the existing law on domestic electronic surveillance--the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enacted in 1978 in response to government's abusive spying on citizens. FISA created a special secret court to issue warrants for domestic eavesdropping on foreign spies and terrorists.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and other committee Democrats complained that the bill guts FISA, but Specter defended it by saying he was seeking to put the program under judicial review.

In return for broad changes in FISA, Specter said, Vice President Dick Cheney promised that the White House would submit the program to the FISA court.

The court would hear only arguments from administration lawyers. Only the administration could appeal and probably would do so only if it lost.

Specter's bill also moves 29 cases filed against telecommunications companies involved in the program to the FISA court, providing another possible channel to the high court, a Senate aide said. But those cases could reach the court without Specter's bill.

The committee also sent two other bills on the program for Senate debate, one by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) that would narrow congressional oversight of the program, and another sponsored by Specter and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would streamline the warrant process but retain FISA's exclusive oversight of domestic surveillance.

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