To what extent should courts become involved in the oversight of
sensitive US eavesdropping operations?
That is one of the most crucial items at issue in the developing
struggle between congressional Democrats and the White House over
new legislation to extend the government's surveillance authority.
Key House Democrats say judges should look over the National
Security Agency's shoulder more often. Under a bill approved by two
House committees Wednesday, if the NSA wants to listen in on
foreigners outside the United States but a possibility exists that
these targets might communicate with Americans, then the government
needs to get a blanket court order approving the effort for up to a
The Bush administration says that provision could hobble American
intelligence. In practical terms, it's always possible that foreign
targets might call the US, say US officials. Thus, the NSA might
have to get court approval even for wiretapping operations aimed at
"That is something that gives us a lot of concern, that we would
have to go to a [court] to get these approvals in an area where we
really need flexibility," said Kenneth Wainstein, assistant attorney
general for the national security division, in a conference call
with reporters Wednesday. "We need to be nimble, and we need to be
able to move around to get these surveillances."
The battle over the wiretap bill promises to be one of the most
difficult and protracted legislative efforts of the current
That's partly because of politics. Democrats on Capitol Hill are
under pressure from civil liberties advocates and others who believe
lawmakers gave intelligence agencies too much latitude in a
temporary bill hastily passed before Congress's summer break.
Meanwhile, the White House has not been shy about invoking the
specter of possible future terrorist attacks in its defense of the
Powers granted by the temporary legislation - which expires in
February 2008 - have allowed intelligence professionals "to gather
critical information that would have been missed with this
authority," said President Bush Wednesday. "Keeping this authority
is critical to keeping America safe."
House leaders defended their effort as one that strikes an
appropriate balance between civil liberties and national security
"What the terrorists fear most is our constitution and our
values, and that is what this bill protects," said Rep. …