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President Signs Law to Expand Wiretapping Program

President Bush signed a law granting the National Security Agency broader authority in monitoring communications among foreigners and Americans. A civil liberties advocate and a former National Security Council lawyer assess the new law.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Casting a wider surveillance net, Judy Woodruff has that story.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    President Bush signed the Protect America Act yesterday after Congress quickly approved the measure before its recess. The new law grants wide latitude to the National Security Agency to intercept phone calls and e-mails of foreigners and, under some circumstances, American citizens.

    Among its key provisions, the act allows wiretapping without a warrant, as long as the surveillance target is reasonably believed to be outside the United States; grants the attorney general and the director of national intelligence the power to authorize the surveillance; and permits the attorney general and the DNI to compel telecommunications companies to cooperate with the government.

    The secret court previously charged with approving individual wiretaps will now determine if the government is complying with the law. The legislation will have to be re-authorized by Congress in six months.

    For more on this modified surveillance program, we get two views. Kate Martin is director of the Center for National Security Studies, a nongovernmental organization that researches and advocates for civil liberties on national security issues.

    And Bryan Cunningham is a former lawyer for the National Security Council in the Bush administration and at the CIA during the Clinton administration. He now is in private practice.

    Thank you both for being with us. And, Kate Martin, to you first. President Bush says this is legislation that is going to fill in what he describes as a dangerous gap in intelligence gathering. How do you see it?

    KATE MARTIN, Center for National Security Studies: Well, if there's a gap that needs to be filled in, Congress should have filled it in. But it is clear that what this legislation actually does is authorizes the NSA to gather up millions or billions of communications by Americans with people overseas.

    And if, after six years after September 11th, the best our intelligence community can do is to wiretap billions of communications by Americans in the hope that they're going to find a needle in a haystack, I think we all have reason to be really concerned.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Bryan Cunningham, is that what this is, an effort or giving the government the ability to wiretap billions of communications?

  • BRYAN CUNNINGHAM, Former Lawyer, National Security Council:

    Absolutely not, Judy. This is another example of the rather stunning hyperbole and miscommunication that we've seen since President Bush signed this bipartisan bill into law.

    It's important to understand what this is directed against. It is directed against purely foreign-to-foreign communication, where you have a terrorist or another threat to U.S. national security overseas communicating with someone else overseas, where the communication may happen to pass through the United States.

    What President Bush has done here is he has now subjected his activities to court review, which the other side has said they wanted, and legislative review, which the other side has said they wanted. And these actions have never been subject to — intended to be subject to any such oversight in American history.

    The FISA Congress in 1978 said explicitly they did not intend to cover foreign-to-foreign communications, and no court has ever held that such communications should be covered. What's happened here is we've gone above and beyond that.