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Fight over court role in US eavesdropping

President Bush and Democrats battle anew over oversight of government surveillance operations.

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To what extent should courts become involved in the oversight of sensitive US eavesdropping operations?

That is one of the most crucial items at issue in the developing struggle between congressional Democrats and the White House over new legislation to extend the government's surveillance authority.

Key House Democrats say judges should look over the National Security Agency's shoulder more often. Under a bill approved by two House committees Wednesday, if the NSA wants to listen in on foreigners outside the United States but a possibility exists that these targets might communicate with Americans, then the government needs to get a blanket court order approving the effort for up to a year.

The Bush administration says that provision could hobble American intelligence. In practical terms, it's always possible that foreign targets might call the US, say US officials. Thus, the NSA might have to get court approval even for wiretapping operations aimed at foreign-to-foreign communications.

"That is something that gives us a lot of concern, that we would have to go to a [court] to get these approvals in an area where we really need flexibility," said Kenneth Wainstein, assistant attorney general for the national security division, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. "We need to be nimble, and we need to be able to move around to get these surveillances."

The battle over the wiretap bill promises to be one of the most difficult and protracted legislative efforts of the current Congress.

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