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US electronic surveillance bill trapped in political limbo

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A controversial bill to expand the government's electronic surveillance authority has once again been delayed from coming to the floor of the House of Representatives as politicians wrangle over the granting immunity to AT&T and other telecommunications companies.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he hoped to finish work to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, by the end of this week or the beginning of next, according to news reports. He said disagreements among Democratic lawmakers remain about whether retroactive immunity should be given to telecom companies that acquiesced to wiretapping demands even though they weren't accompanied by a court order.

According to news reports, moderate and conservative democrats have backed a plan already passed by the Senate to grant the after-the-fact immunity provision, but more liberal representatives are pushing to strip the bill of those provisions.

President Bush and other Republicans have repeatedly castigated the House for failing to take up the Bill more than three weeks after it was passed by the Senate. They argue the delay is compromising national security by preventing investigators from carrying out surveillance on potential terrorists.

Meanwhile, bloggers have jumped on comments made earlier this week by a top Department of Justice official to argue that the real intent of FISA supporters is to obtain the ability to intercept email.

During a breakfast on Capitol Hill earlier this week, according to this article in The Washington Post, Assistant Attorney General for National Security Kenneth Wainstein complained that under current rules many emails and other electronic communications are off limits because "you don't know where the recipient is going to be."

Up until then, the FISA debate centered generally around the legality of eavesdropping on telephone calls between foreigners and specifically whether a warrant was necessary when the cables connecting the parties happened to pass through the US.

Wainstein seemed to be arguing that the real concern among FISA supporters is the ability to legally intercept foreign-to-foreign emails if one of the parties happens to pick up one of the messages while in US territory.

"What this means, of course, is that while the public outcry has been focused on AT&T, it should have included a few other firms, including perhaps Microsoft, Yahoo and Google," CNET blogger Chris Soghoian argued here. ®

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