WASHINGTON — A key Republican senator is trying to expand the federal government's electronic surveillance authority just as congressional Democrats are looking for ways to curtail those powers.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said Monday he wants Congress to grant immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the government's warrantless wiretapping program prior to January 2007.
"I strongly believe that retroactive immunity is critical to adopt in order to ensure the government can get assistance from (telecommunications) carriers," Bond, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told an audience of attorneys, intelligence officials and civil liberties groups.
The amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed in early August, requires telecommunications companies to cooperate with government requests for assistance in eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails, and protects them from criminal and civil lawsuits. But the law stops short of offering the same protection to assistance rendered prior to January 2007, when the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program was brought under the strictures of FISA.
The FISA amendment _ and the government's new powers to listen in on any foreign communication it deems of interest without a court order, even if an American is a party to it _ expires early next year. As Congress takes a closer look at the law, many Democrats now want to rein in language many consider overly broad.
Bond, however, thinks the bill does not go quite far enough.
Bond, along with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sponsored the bill enacted last month. It was largely drawn from an 11-page proposal pushed by the Bush administration.
Bond said he also wants to expand the law to allow monitoring of all types of foreign communications, and shorten the application process for warrants to eavesdrop on suspect American telephone conversations and e-mails by requiring less detail and expanding the list of federal officials who can approve warrant applications.
Bond also wants to tighten one contentious aspect of the new law that can be interpreted to allow the U.S. government to listen in on calls and e-mails made by Americans who are abroad. It authorizes surveillance of "persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States," which could include Americans. He seeks to include a reference to a presidential order that already limits the surveillance of Americans overseas.