WASHINGTON - President Bush's spy chief is pushing to expand the government's surveillance authority at the same time the administration is under attack for stretching its domestic eavesdropping powers.
National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell has circulated a draft bill that would expand the government's powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, liberalizing how that law can be used.
Known as "FISA," the 1978 law was passed to allow surveillance in espionage and other foreign intelligence investigations, but still allow federal judges on a secretive panel to ensure protections for U.S. citizens - at home or abroad - and other permanent U.S. residents.
The changes McConnell is seeking mostly affect a cloak-and-dagger category of warrants used to investigate suspected spies, terrorists and other national security threats. The court-approved surveillance could include planting listening devices and hidden cameras, searching luggage and breaking into homes to make copies of computer hard drives.
McConnell, who took over the 16 U.S. spy agencies and their 100,000 employees less than three months ago, is signaling a more aggressive posture for his office and will lay out his broad priorities on Wednesday.
According to officials familiar with the draft changes to FISA, McConnell wants to:
• Give the NSA the power to monitor foreigners without seeking FISA court approval, even if the surveillance is conducted by tapping phones and e-mail accounts in the United States.
• Clarify the standards the FBI and NSA must use to get court orders for basic information about calls and e-mails - such as the number dialed, e-mail address, or time and date of the communications.
• Give telecommunications companies immunity from civil liability for their cooperation with Bush's terrorist surveillance program. Pending lawsuits against companies including Verizon and AT&T allege they violated privacy laws by giving phone records to the NSA for the program.
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