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Bush Signs Temporary Wiretap Law

Although Congress approved expanding warrantless surveillance of Americans over the weekend, lawmakers are expected to again take up the controversial issue after their annual August recess.

The Protect America Act revises the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to allow U.S. intelligence agencies – without a court order -- to wiretap telephone conversations and intercept e-mail of Americans communicating with others abroad.

According to the new law, the calls or e-mail must involve foreign intelligence information. That determination is left to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The measure expires in six months and calls for Inspector General audits of the program.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on her blog Saturday, "Although the bill has a six month sunset clause, I do not believe the American people will want to wait that long before corrective action is taken."

In a letter to the chairmen of the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, Pelosi urged the panels to reconvene as soon as possible in September to pass new legislation addressing the "many deficiencies" in the new law.

Both President Bush, who signed the law on Sunday, and Mike McConnell, the director of National Intelligence, said the new law was necessary to keep up with the technology used by terrorists, particularly e-mail routed through the U.S.

"Today we face a dynamic threat from enemies who understand how to use modern technology against us," Bush said Sunday. "Whether foreign terrorists, hostile nations, or other actors, they change their tactics frequently and seek to exploit the very openness and freedoms we hold dear."

Bush also wants Congress to reconvene quickly to reconsider the legislation to include liability protection for carriers who participate in the program. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, sued AT&T last year for its alleged participation in the government's warrantless surveillance programs initiated in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The EFF contends AT&T, the nation's largest telecom provider, provided the National Security Agency (NSA) access to its caller database, as well as facilitated surveillance of customers.

Last year, a federal judge today ordered the Bush administration to cease all warrantless wiretapping of calls between Americans and suspected foreign terrorists.

"While I appreciate the leadership it took to pass this bill, we must remember that our work is not done," Bush said. "This bill is a temporary, narrowly focused statute to deal with the most immediate shortcomings in the law."

In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also stressed the temporary nature of the bill.

"This legislation is a temporary fix. It is not permanent and it expires in six months. It immediately addresses critical gaps in our intelligence-collection efforts," U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "The intelligence community is deeply concerned that chatter among suspected terrorist networks is up."

Civil liberties and public advocacy groups widely panned the measure.

"Simply put, this legislation would render FISA ineffective when it comes to protecting the privacy Americans' of international communications," Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology said in a statement. "The bill effectively allows the government to spy on Americans when it targets someone overseas with whom a person in the U.S. is communicating."

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Washington office, warned that the White House "is on the verge of reviving a warrantless wiretapping program even broader than the illegal one it conducted before."

Neither AT&T nor Verizon, the country's number two carrier, responded to requests for comment on the new law.