WASHINGTON - The Democratic-led U.S. Senate, amid warnings of further attacks on the United States, approved a bill on Friday that would allow President George W. Bush to maintain his controversial domestic spying program.
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said earlier he needed the legislation "in order to protect the nation from attacks that are being planned today to inflict mass casualties on the United States."
The Senate bill was needed, congressional aides said, because of restrictions recently imposed by a secret court on the ability of U.S. spy agencies to intercept telephone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists overseas.
Offered by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, no relation to the national intelligence director, the bill would allow the administration to continue the warrantless surveillance but require it to describe to a secret federal court the procedures it uses in targeting foreign suspects.
The Senate defeated, on a 45-43 vote, a Democratic alternative, which would have placed tighter controls on the spying and provided for independent assessments of the attorney general's implementation of the measure.
The Senate votes came shortly after Republicans in the House rejected as inadequate a competing Democratic measure.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid criticized the Senate-passed bill, saying it "authorizes warrantless searches and surveillance of American phone calls, e-mails, homes, offices and personal records for however long (it takes for) an appeal to a court of review."
If signed into law, the Senate bill would expire in six months. During that period, Congress would seek to write permanent legislation.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed in 1978, requires the government to obtain orders from the secret FISA court to conduct surveillance of suspected terrorists in the United States.
After the September 11 attacks, Bush authorized the interception without warrants of communications between people in the United States and others overseas if one had suspected ties to terrorists. Critics charge that program violated the FISA law, but Bush argued he had wartime powers to do so.
In January, Bush put the program under the supervision of the FISA court. Terms of the oversight have not been made public.
House Democrats argued their bill gave the national intelligence director what he wanted and that he demanded more after conversations with the White House.
The House bill would have required the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, to submit procedures for international surveillance to the secret FISA court for approval and require periodic audits by the Justice Department's inspector general.
Gonzales had proven to be a problem in reaching an agreement since mostly Democratic lawmakers have accused him of misleading Congress on the spying program.
© Reuters 2007.