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The FISA showdown

From NBC's Pete Williams and Mark Murray
Earlier today, President Bush delivered this demand to Congress: Give him the legislation he wants to close the intelligence gap in the current Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. "So far, the Democrats in Congress have not drafted a bill I can sign. We've worked hard and in good faith with the Democrats to find a solution, but we are not going to put our national security at risk. Time is short. I'm going to ask Congress to stay in session until they pass a bill that will give our intelligence community the tools they need to protect the United States."

Here, as best we can tell, is what the dispute is about over making changes in the law limiting the government's ability to collect foreign intelligence: There's general agreement that a recent secret ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has limited the ability of the NSA to monitor communications among suspected terrorist overseas. More of the world's phone and e-mail traffic is now flowing through electronic switchboards in the US. The recent ruling apparently limits NSA's access to communications that take place strictly overseas when the point of collection is in the US.

There is bipartisan agreement in Congress for a bill that would fix this problem by clarifying that no court order is needed for intercepting foreign-to-foreign e-mails and phone conversations, even though they may pass through the US. The hang-up is apparently over what to do when an overseas terror suspect makes frequent calls into the US. Many Democrats believe that when US citizens are ensnared in the process of spying on targets overseas, the government needs a court order. But the Bush Administration declares that an "artificial barrier" to intelligence collection. "Any legislation that conditions our ability to swiftly collect intelligence upon the foreign target's frequency of contact with persons in the United States is unworkable and unacceptable," says a White House statement out this afternoon.