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US legislators have approved controversial wiretapping operations by American spies, which had been forbidden by secret judges.

AP reports that Congress voted 227 to 183 on Saturday to approve a new bill modifying the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Under FISA, whenever US spooks want to intercept communications within America, they typically need to obtain a warrant from a special secret court.

In the wake of 9/11, President Bush sidelined the FISA court and authorised the National Security Agency (NSA) to tap electronic communications within the US in bulk. This effort has been presented as targeted primarily at people overseas whose calls, emails, or whatever were routed via the States; however it appears that in many cases at least one end of the link was within the USA.

After the NSA programme became known, at least some elements of it were put back under FISA court oversight. Initially, secret judges were happy to authorise the programme, but it now appears that some months ago the star-chamber warrant was not renewed. As a result, the Bush administration and the intelligence community have sought a change in the law.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have resisted, claiming that bulk automated wiretapping against US citizens is unconstitutional, but have been in a difficult position. A future terrorist attack against the US has to be regarded as a likely contingency, and after every attack there will inevitably be witch-hunts and blame pinned. After 9/11, the spies took a lot of the heat; but next time, if they aren't given the powers they're asking for, the finger might point at politicians in Washington.

Democrat opponents of the Bush plan have won a minor concession in that there will be joint oversight by the Attorney General and the national spy czar, rather than by AG Gonzales - widely disliked by the Democrats - alone. More importantly, the legislation will expire in six months unless renewed.

The AP report can be read here. ®

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