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Congress approves 5-year extension of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

| Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, 8:52 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Senate gave final congressional approval on Friday to a bill renewing the government's authority to monitor overseas phone calls and emails of suspected foreign spies and terrorists — but not Americans —without obtaining a court order for each intercept.

The classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act program was on the brink of expiring by year's end. The 73-23 vote sent the bill to a supportive President Obama, whose signature would keep the warrantless intercept program in operation for five more years.

The Senate majority rejected arguments from an unusual combination of Democratic liberals and ideological Republican conservatives, who sought to amend the bill to require the government to reveal statistics showing whether any Americans were swept up in the foreign intercepts. The attempt lost, with 52 votes against and 43 in favor.

The Obama administration's intelligence community and leaders of the Senate's intelligence committee said the information should be classified and opposed the disclosure, repeating that it is illegal to target Americans without an order from a special U.S. surveillance court.

The group seeking more disclosures also sought — unsuccessfully — a determination by the government of whether any intelligence agency attempted to use information gained from foreigners to search for information on Americans without a warrant, referred to as “back-door” searches. The prohibition against targeting Americans without a warrant protects Americans wherever they are, in the United States or elsewhere.

The debate focused on the need to balance national security with civil liberties. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the chairwoman and top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that the classified intercept program would be jeopardized if even statistical information was disclosed. They sparred repeatedly with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who held the bill up for months until he was allowed to argue on the Senate floor that Americans' civil liberties were in danger under the law.

During debate that began Thursday, Feinstein bluntly told Wyden, a fellow liberal, that she opposed his disclosure amendment because, “I know where this goes. Where it goes is to destroy the program.”

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