The House handed President Bush a victory Saturday, voting to expand the government's abilities to eavesdrop without warrants on foreign suspects whose communications pass through the United States.
The 227-183 vote, which followed the Senate's approval Friday, sends the bill to Bush for his signature. He had urged Congress to approve it, saying Saturday, "Protecting America is our most solemn obligation."
The administration said the measure is needed to speed the National Security Agency's ability to intercept phone calls, e-mails and other communications involving foreign nationals "reasonably believed to be outside the United States." Civil liberties groups and many Democrats said it goes too far, possibly enabling the government to wiretap U.S. residents communicating with overseas parties without adequate oversight from courts or Congress.
The bill updates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA. It gives the government leeway to intercept, without warrants, communications between foreigners that are routed through equipment in the United States, provided that "foreign intelligence information" is at stake. Bush describes the effort as an antiterrorist program, but the bill is not limited to terror suspects and could have wider applications, some lawmakers said.
The government long has had substantial powers to intercept purely foreign communications that don't touch U.S. soil. But if a U.S. resident becomes the chief target of surveillance, the government would have to obtain a warrant from the special FISA court.
Congressional Democrats won a few concessions in negotiations earlier. New wiretaps must be approved by the director of national intelligence and the attorney general, not just the attorney general. Congress has battled with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on several issues, and some Democrats have accused him of perjury.
The new law will expire in six months unless Congress renews it. The administration wanted the changes to be permanent.
The administration began pressing for changes to the law after a ruling by the FISA court. That decision barred the government from eavesdropping without warrants on foreign suspects whose messages were being routed through U.S. communications carriers, including Internet sites.