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Extending the Warrantless Wiretapping Law

What Bush Said: President Bush challenged Congress to pass new legislation that would help the U.S. government "know who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning." He was referring to the government's ability to carry out wiretapping of communications — phone calls or e-mails — involving suspected terrorists who are overseas. The authority to do that is in the Protect America Act, a six-month measure that is set to expire Friday.

"This means that if you do not act by Friday, our ability to track terrorist threats would be weakened, and our citizens will be in greater danger," the president said.

Analysis: In fact, no current wiretapping of suspected terrorist communications will have to be halted if Congress does not act by Friday. The law may expire, but the authority to continue surveillance already in progress remains in effect at least until August. That's because under the Protect America Act, those authorities were given for a year. There would be no "disruption" of the wiretaps that have already been authorized. However, if the law expires Friday, the attorney general would not be able to ask for any new intercepts. That means if intelligence collected through current wiretaps produces a new lead, the government may not be able to follow that up.

Outlook in Congress: There is support in Congress for revision of the surveillance legislation to provide most of the authority sought by the administration. Progress on getting new legislation passed, however, has been blocked by a disagreement over whether to provide retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that complied with warrantless surveillance requests after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Those companies face lawsuits by civil rights groups, and many Democrats in Congress oppose letting the companies "off the hook" for behavior they say was illegal. The Democratic-led House has already passed legislation renewing surveillance authority but not providing retroactive immunity — which the White House considers essential. The Senate Intelligence Committee has approved legislation that provides most of what the White House is seeking. Democratic critics want to be allowed to introduce amendments to the proposed legislation.

On the Campaign Trail: This is not much of an issue on the campaign trail.

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Tom Gjelten
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.