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By LAURIE KELLMAN
Faltering under Republican infighting, President Bush’s embattled anti-terrorism agenda has some new momentum from a House member who has rewritten her warrantless wiretapping bill more to his liking and from maverick GOP senators open to talks on how to handle detainees.
Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., is swapping her original bill giving legal status to Bush’s domestic surveillance program with one that would grant a key administration request: allow wiretapping without warrants on Americans when the president believes a terrorist attack is "imminent."
But the concession carries a price for the president, according to a draft of Wilson’s bill obtained by The Associated Press.
Under the measure, the administration would be required to share more details of the nature of the threat with the House and Senate leaders and the chairmen of both intelligence committees, who then would decide without administration input which lawmakers would receive the classified information.
"Excesses are best prevented when intelligence activities are operated within a framework that controls government power by using checks and balances among the three branches of government," Wilson said in a statement.
The substitute, being considered Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee, represents a possible breakthrough in a bitter, election-season rift between the White House and GOP leaders on one side and Republican lawmakers concerned about Bush’s use of executive authority in his war on terror.
While the wiretapping question moved ahead, the second prong of Bush’s legislative war agenda — treatment of detainees — also showed signs of progress.
The White House and a group of Senate Republicans continued Tuesday to swap proposals on legislation authorizing the interrogation and prosecution of terrorism suspects.
The two sides remained at odds over how to adhere to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and at the same time allow the CIA to conduct effective interrogations.
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday was considering the definition of war crimes under a bill passed 52-8 by the House Armed Services Committee last week.
Wilson’s bill would grant the administration’s request that the White House be able to wiretap without a warrant when administration officials believe an attack is "imminent," rather than after an attack has occurred as Wilson had originally proposed.
But Wilson’s rewrite would grant that authority on highly conditional grounds, forcing the president first to submit details of the suspected plot to House and Senate leaders of both parties as well as the chairmen and ranking Democrats of the Intelligence Committees. The secret court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act also would be advised.
Under the bill, the parties must be notified in writing that "the president has determined that there exists an imminent threat of attack likely to cause death serious injury or substantial economic damage to the United States."
The notification must:
Be submitted within five days of the president’s authorization of the surveillance.
Name the entity or entities responsible for the threat.
State the reason for believing the attack is imminent, though the early draft obtained by the AP does not define the term.
Describe the foreign intelligence expected to be obtained through the surveillance and the means of the surveillance.
The bill also would prevent the president or his designee from authorizing the surveillance of a person unless they have "a reasonable belief" that the subject is communicating with a group responsible for the imminent threat, and that the information obtained "may be foreign intelligence information."
Wilson also added provisions that would spell out that the House and Senate intelligence committee chairmen would have sole discretion to share the information with all or any panel members and staff.
Amid the whirl of developments, the prospects for congressional passage of the wiretapping and detainee policies were unclear in the waning 10 days before lawmakers recess so they can campaign for the Nov. 7 elections.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he expects Wilson’s bill to come to the floor next week. But even if it passes the House, the Senate must churn through three conflicting pieces of legislation on the same matter.
Detainee legislation faces a similar crush in the House and Senate next week.
Associated Press Writer Anne Plummer Flaherty contributed to this report.