House votes to allow surveillance of overseas terrorists without court permission

Several Democrats spoke against the bill and said there have been reports that in the process of collecting data on non-U.S. terrorists overseas, some data is being collected on U.S. citizens. The Democrats said this problem means Congress should be demanding more oversight of this process, which is absent from the GOP bill that was approved.

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“Congress should prohibit the federal government from intentionally searching for information on a U.S. person in a data pool amassed lawfully ... unless the searching official has a warrant,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said during debate. She also said the current law does not make it clear that a warrant should be needed before officials sift through data pools that could contain information on U.S. citizens.

“I think that the government needs to comply with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution all the time,” she said.

Republican supporters of the bill noted that the legislation maintains the current rule that says surveillance of U.S. citizens overseas can only take place after officials get a court order. But one Republican, Rep. Tom McClintock (Calif.), sided with Democrats on this point, arguing no one knows today whether or how intelligence agencies are enforcing this provision.

“We’re told, ‘don’t worry, the law requires that any irrelevant information collected in this manner be disregarded,’ ” McClintock said. “But here’s the problem: the enforcement of this provision is itself shrouded in secrecy, making the potential for abuse substantial and any remedy unlikely.

"Secret courts and warrantless surveillance are not compatible with a free society or the English common law or the American Constitution," he said.

The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee both said they support the bill as a way to ensure current surveillance operations are not interrupted.

"If we let this authority expire we will lose a critical intelligence collection tool against foreigners on foreign soil," Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Mich.) said.

"Contrary to what some may say, FAA is not about domestic surveillance, and it does not authorize a sweeping dragnet, collecting American communications," he added. "This is about foreigners on foreign soil."

"I support the president's request for a five-year extension," ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said. "Without reauthorization, this critical tool would be lost, putting our nation at severe risk."

The bill now goes to the Senate, which seems likely to approve it at some point before the end of the year given support from most Republicans and a significant number of Democrats in 2008.

Immediately after the vote on the surveillance bill, the House approved H.R. 3857, the Public Transit Security and Local Law Enforcement, in a 355-62 vote. And, it approved H.R. 5865, the American Manufacturing Competitiveness, in a 339-77 vote.

Both of these were suspension bills, and needed a two-thirds majority for passage.

—This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. to add the suspension bill votes.

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