Congress Quietly Debates Merits of Warrantless `Spy' Searches Post-Cold-War `Black-Bag' Break-Ins Remain Highly Controversial

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CITING national security concerns, federal agents have continued a cold war policy of secretly searching the homes and offices of American citizens suspected of aiding foreign powers.

These "black-bag jobs," conducted without court orders, have gotten the go-ahead from President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, just as they did from two previous presidents.

Key members of Congress, who worry that White House policy violates the Constitution, are now engaged in a quiet debate over ways to safeguard civil liberties without undercutting the government's counter-intelligence agencies.

A Senate-passed intelligence bill (S. 2056) would require that the White House get permission from a special federal court before conducting break-ins at the homes of United States citizens or at foreign embassies in Washington, D.C.

Unlike their predecessors, Mr. Clinton and Ms. Reno have encouraged Congress to clear up legal uncertainties over black-bag jobs.

The issue recently gained new urgency with the case of CIA official Aldrich Ames, a Soviet spy. Mr. Ames' home in Arlington, Virginia, was the target of two secret federal searches in June and October, 1993.

However, if the case had come to trial, Ames's attorney threatened to use the government's warrantless break-ins to attack the case against his client.

The Fourth Amendment assures "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures...." It guarantees that warrants will not be issued unless there is "probable cause" and that the warrant must describe the "persons or things to be seized."

None of these safeguards were carried out in the Ames case. According to a source on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Reno was deeply concerned about a potential constitutional challenge by Ames.

She was reported to have said, essentially: That's it. We're not going to do any more of this.

The Senate bill, however, is itself a subject of controversy on Capitol Hill. The House, where some members say S. 2056 contains inadequate safeguards, has so far refused to go along. The issue will be the subject of a House-Senate conference in late September.

The Senate bill would require that government get approval from the little-known Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court prior to a secret physical search of homes, offices, and embassies.

The FISA court, named after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, consists of seven federal district judges appointed by the chief justice of the US. The judges serve for a maximum of seven years. …