Here's a ringing endorsement: After defending the key provisions of a bipartisan measure to monitor foreign terrorists, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Friday, "I'm not asking anyone to vote for this bill, I'm just telling you why I was." Her ambivalence reflected her colleagues' mixed feelings about the Bush administration's controversial efforts to tap telephone calls and e-mails into and out of the United States.
Critics of the bill (HR 6304) complain that it would give the executive branch broad license to spy on U.S. residents without a warrant. Any phone call or e-mail with targets in other countries could be intercepted without prior court approval if the administration claimed it necessary in an emergency. And if the administration should overstep even these permissive boundaries, telecommunications companies would be all but immune from liability for the illegal taps.
But as Pelosi pointed out before the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bill, opponents are holding out for something that almost certainly isn't going to happen. Lawmakers are too concerned about Al Qaeda attacks to roll back surveillance programs aimed at potentially hostile foreigners, even if those programs cast a net over Americans' communications.
The bill takes a more realistic "trust, but verify" approach to the interception of international calls or e-mails. It would let the administration authorize the monitoring but would require the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve and enforce protections for U.S. residents. The bill would bar surveillance until those procedures were approved except in loosely defined "exigent circumstances," in which case the administration would have to seek approval within a week. It also would have four inspectors general investigate the current surveillance program. Most important, it would stop the White House from setting its own rules for surveillance when Americans are involved.