The House voted Wednesday to renew a contested surveillance law, moving it a step closer to full reauthorization -- a goal strongly shared by the White House and the intelligence community as a way to protect the nation against terrorism and other foreign threats.
Renewal of the FISA Amendments Act, enacted in 2008 after heated debate, faces hurdles in the Senate, where more than a dozen lawmakers are concerned that the law does not adequately protect Americans' privacy and civil liberties.
The House voted 300 to 118 to extend the law for five years. The Senate likely will not take up the bill until after the Nov. 6 election.
The Obama administration is pressing the case that renewal it is crucial to preserving the government's capabilities to collect intelligence on adversaries overseas. At the same time it is seeking to refute assertions made by civil libertarians and some lawmakers -- most notably Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., -- that the law enables the intelligence community to spy on Americans without probable cause.
"The Congress never intended to authorize warrantless searches for the communications of specific Americans," said Wyden, who in June announced his intention to block the bill unless it includes stronger privacy protections.
The 2008 law revised the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, adopted in 1978 after congressional hearings revealed abuses in which intelligence agencies spied on American antiwar protesters, civil rights leaders and others without warrants. The revision also followed disclosures that the government, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, launched a program in which the National Security Agency collected Americans' emails and phone calls without a warrant.
The law was revised in part to ensure that the program operated under court supervision. It also enabled the government to collect from U.S. companies the communications of foreigners overseas, even if they are communicating with someone in the United States, as long as the target is a foreigner overseas.
In such cases where Americans' calls or e-mails are "incidentally" collected, their data is subject to rules limiting its use and masking their identity, officials said. If a U.S. citizen or permanent resident becomes the target of collection, a warrant must be obtained.