The US House of Representatives defied President George W. Bush on Thursday, passing a bill tightening legal oversight of the power of intelligence agents to use wiretaps to eavesdrop on terror suspects.
The bill, approved in the Democratic-led House by 227 votes to 189 did not however meet the president’s demands for retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications firms which may have handed over data to the government.
The White House immediately warned the legislation would “dangerously weaken our ability to protect the nation from foreign threats.”
“If this bill is presented to the President in its current form, the Director of National Intelligence and the President’s other senior advisers will recommend that he veto it.”
The legislation would replace a previous law passed in August under fierce pressure from the administration that expanded the powers of the US intelligence services to use wiretaps in global terror probes.
Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the new bill would give “the intelligence community the tools it needs to listen in on those who seek to harm us, while addressing concerns that the bill passed in August could authorize warrantless surveillance of Americans.”
The bill permits wide powers for US agents to listen in on telephone and email conversations outside the United States but routed through US-based communications firms.
But if one party is thought to be on the US mainland more legal constraints would apply.
The Senate still has to act on the legislation.
The rush to change US law came after a US federal judge earlier this year secretly ruled a key element of the electronic telephone wiretapping program was illegal.
The ruling held that the Bush administration had overstepped its authority in trying to eavesdrop on communications between two locations abroad that are passed through routing stations in US territory.
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop, without a court warrant, on telephone calls and e-mails between people inside the United States and suspected terrorists abroad.
The administration put the warrantless domestic eavesdropping program under the supervision of the secret court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in January after months of criticism from civil liberties groups.