US House votes to tighten terror, spy record probes

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WASHINGTON, July 27 (Reuters) The US House of Representatives passed legislation aimed at clamping down on the government's collection of telephone and financial records of people it suspects of terrorism or spying.

By a vote of 281-142, the House yesterday approved a law enforcement spending bill for the fiscal year starting on October 1, which the Senate has not yet debated.

The White House has warned that President George W Bush would veto the bill because its overall price tag of 53.5 billion dollars is 2.3 billion dollars more than he requested.

Earlier this year, FBI auditors found the agency had abused its National Security Letter authority, which allows companies to release private information, such as telephone and financial records, without court approval.

Use of the national security letters has grown significantly since the September 11 attacks on the United States.

The legislation passed by the House explicitly prohibits the FBI from initiating a national security letter in a way that skirts the law.

Lisa Graves, deputy director for the Center for National Security Studies, called the legislation ''a modest step toward addressing some of the concerns of national security letters,'' but added that broader reforms were needed.

Michelle Richardson, a legislative consultant for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the law governing the letters ''is still so broad, no doubt tens of thousands will be issued this year, a majority of which target US persons.'' Broader reforms were proposed on Thursday in legislation unveiled by a group of Democratic and Republican House members.

Rep Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who chairs a House Judiciary panel that oversees civil liberties, said the legislation would restore a standard requiring that records being sought are ''related to a suspected terrorist or spy'' and recipients of the letters would be allowed to challenge the letter and its nondisclosure requirement.

Richardson praised the proposal, saying it ''gets to the heart of the problem.'' But it was unclear how far the legislation would advance this year.

The fiscal 2008 spending bill also would beef up efforts to fight illegal drug use, add more money to study global climate change and boost space science funding.

Reuters BJR SBA VP0440

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