Congressional negotiators are busy working out a compromise with the Bush administration over reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). As a result, the specifics of any prospective legislation are currently unknown. But leading civil liberties and national security experts certainly know what they want the bill to contain -- and some, at least, are inclining favorably to a fix that Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, is proposing. Here's a guide to what to look for.
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Carve-Outs vs. Safeguards. What the Bush administration wants -- and probably has done over the past six years -- is to remove FISA protections from a broad swath of people in the U.S. in order to look for terrorism connections. That has had, and will have, broad implications for what the U.S. intelligence community can collect in terms of domestic communications. "Everything that they've proposed to redefine the term 'electronic surveillance' under FISA, the effect is to put millions of communications outside the protection of FISA. It's a carve-out," says Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies. The person the administration wants to supervise that carve-out for U.S. persons able to be targeted is... the attorney-general.
Rockefeller's proposal, as it stands so far, doesn't change any existing term under FISA. Instead, pursuant to FISA as it stands, the National Security Agency can collect intelligence unimpeded on foreign-to-foreign communications. The administration would be required to go to the FISA Court for a blanket authorization targeting foreign suspected terrorists, in order to make a case that its methods are likely to net foreign communications primarily. All of what follows is a temporary fix -- set to expire after six months so the administration and Congress can work out a permanent solution -- but after 60 days of surveillance, the administration would have to inform Congress and the FISA Court exactly who has had their communications intercepted. And if the administration believes there's a "significant" pattern of communication between someone in the U.S. and a foreign-based surveillance target, it has to acquire a specific warrant from the FISA Court or end the surveillance.
"That preserves the basic framework of FISA," says Martin, "that to listen in to people in the U.S., you need a probable-cause warrant." No carve-out there, but a lot can change in deadline negotiation.