Bush signs terror surveillance overhaul into law

US President George W Bush Thursday signed a piece of legislation that gives the intelligence community broad new powers to eavesdrop on communications between Americans and foreign terrorism suspects, dpa reported.

Bush called the new authority "vital to the security of our people" in a signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, expected to be one of his last significant legislative achievements before leaving office in January.

"It is essential that our intelligence community know who our enemies are talking to, what they're saying, and what they're planning," Bush said.

"The legislation I am signing today will ensure that our intelligence community professionals have the tools they need to protect our country in the years to come," he said.

The US Senate on Wednesday passed the long-awaited bill, which legitimizes an eavesdropping programme that has been significantly expanded by the Bush administration after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The revised Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, thrashed out between Republicans, Democrats and the White House after a year of wrangling, nevertheless places fresh restrictions on terrorism surveillance practices, boosts congressional oversight and reinstates a federal court that has to approve all surveillance requests.

A bitter debate has simmered for years over the proper balance between national security and civil liberties, and the American Civil Liberties Union announced Wednesday that it would challenge the new measure in US courts.

The Senate adopted the compromise bill 69-28 after the House of Representatives approved similar legislation last month. Bush said the legislation struck the right balance between protecting privacy and ensuring national security.

The bill effectively reestablishes the primacy of the FISA court, set up in 1978 to allow the government to produce classified information. The Bush administration had largely bypassed the court since 2001, arguing that seeking warrants took too much time given the heightened terrorist threat.

But opponents said the compromise bill still allows warrantless surveillance of Americans if the information is collected overseas instead of in the US, and did not contain enough safeguards and oversight to prevent abuse of the system.

It also controversially grants immunity from lawsuits to telecommunications companies that provided information without warrants to the Bush administration in the years after September 11, 2001.

Bush's warrantless surveillance programme was first revealed by media organizations in 2005, and about 40 lawsuits against telecoms firms are now pending in US courts. Many Democrats in the Senate strongly had argued those cases should be allowed to proceed.

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