WASHINGTON – Two months after vowing to roll back broad new wiretapping powers won by the Bush administration, congressional Democrats appear ready to make concessions that could extend some of the key powers granted to the National Security Agency.
Bush administration officials say they are confident they will win approval of the broadened wiretapping authority that they secured temporarily in August as Congress rushed toward recess, and some Democratic officials admit that they may not come up with the votes to rein in the administration.
As the debate over the NSA’s wiretapping powers begins anew this week, the emerging legislation reflects the political reality confronting the Democrats. While they are willing to oppose the White House on the conduct of the war in Iraq, they remain nervous that they will be labeled as soft on terrorism if they insist on strict curbs on intelligence-gathering.
A Democratic bill to be proposed today in the House would maintain for several years the type of broad, blanket authority for NSA wiretapping that the administration secured in August for just six months. But in an acknowledgment of civil liberties concerns, the measure would also require a more active role by the special foreign intelligence court that oversees the NSA’s interception of foreign-based communications.
A competing proposal in the Senate, still being drafted, may be even closer in line with the administration’s demands, with the possibility of including retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that took part in the NSA’s once-secret program to wiretap without court warrants.
No one is willing to predict with certainty how the issue will play out. But some congressional officials and others monitoring the debate over the legislation said that the final result may not be much different than it was two months ago, despite Democrats’ insistence that they would not let stand the August extension of the NSA’s powers.
“Many members continue to fear that if they don’t support whatever the president asks for, they’ll be perceived as soft on terrorism,” said William Banks, a professor specializing in terrorism and national security law at Syracuse University who has written extensively on federal wiretapping law.
The August bill, known as the Protect America Act, was approved by Congress in the final hours before its summer recess after heated warnings from the administration that legal loopholes in wiretapping coverage had left the country vulnerable to another terrorist attack. The legislation significantly reduced the role of the foreign intelligence court and broadened the NSA’s ability to listen in on foreign-based communications without a court warrant.
“We want the statute made permanent,” Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said Monday. “We view this as a healthy debate. We also view it as an opportunity to inform Congress and the public that we can use these authorities responsibly. We’re going to go forward and look at any proposals that come forth, but we’ll look at them very carefully to make sure they don’t have any consequences that hamper our abilities to protect the country.”
House Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the interim legislation in August and believed at the time they had been forced into a corner by the administration.
As Congress takes up the new legislation, a senior Democratic aide said House leaders are working hard to make sure the administration does not succeed in pushing through a bill that would make permanent all the powers it secured in August for the NSA. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” the aide said. “We have that concern too.”