- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2008

Congress defied concerns about a post-Sept. 11 government assault on privacy rights and granted final passage Wednesday to new laws for spy-agency eavesdropping on terror suspects abroad, delivering a major policy victory to President Bush.

Ending more than a year of wrangling between the White House and the Democrat-led Congress over modernizing the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the measure lets the government intercept foreign calls without court approval and gives phone companies legal immunity for aiding the administration’s warrantless wiretap program enacted after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The 69-28 Senate vote that sent the bill to the president’s desk divided Democrats and spurred criticism of the party’s likely presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, for switching his position to support the bill.

President Bush said he will soon sign the bill, calling it “critical to America’s safety [and] long overdue.”

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“This vital intelligence bill will allow our national security professionals to quickly and effectively monitor the plans of terrorists outside the United States, while respecting the liberties of the American people,” Mr. Bush, who had just returned form a four-day trip to Japan, said in the Rose Garden shortly after the vote.

“This bill will help our intelligence professionals learn who the terrorists are talking to, what they’re saying and what they’re planning,” he said. “It will ensure that those companies whose assistance is necessary to protect the country will, themselves, be protected from lawsuits for past or future cooperation with the government. It will uphold our most solemn obligation as officials of the federal government: to protect the American people.”

Mr. Bush vowed to veto the bill if it didn’t stop the more than 40 lawsuits pending against the phone companies.

The American Civil Liberties Union blasted the outcome but applauded the Democratic senators who voted against the bill, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

“Freedom took a hit today,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “When this bill is enacted, Americans on American soil will no longer be alone in their own living rooms. Uncle Sam may be there too, listening in without a warrant.”

Democrats faced mounting pressure to fix FISA, which originally applied to domestic phone calls only but in modern times requires approval from the secret FISA court to intercept calls worldwide because they zip through U.S. telecom systems.

Intelligence officials warned that requiring warrants hamstrings their efforts to combat terrorism. Wiretaps have been approved under a temporary fix last year, but that bill will start to expire in August.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said the bill is not perfect but is an acceptable compromise. He insisted that Democrats had not caved to White House demands.

“We got exactly what we wanted,” he said. “What we were trying to overcome was all that the White House had done wrong for those first seven years to make sure it never happens again. … To me, this was the natural and the right thing to do.”

Mr. Obama joined 20 fellow Democrats who voted for the bill, reversing his pledge during the hard-fought primary race to “unequivocally oppose” any bill that grants retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies.

“Given the choice between voting for an improved yet imperfect bill, and losing important surveillance tools, I’ve chosen to support the current compromise,” Mr. Obama said in a statement posted on his campaign Web site.

The turnabout caused his liberal base to accuse him of selling out while Republicans criticized him for waffling.

“It’s been a long road on the terrorist surveillance issue,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said shortly before the vote. “Many members of the Senate have had deep convictions on both sides of the question. The Democratic nominee for president seems to have convictions on both sides of the issue.”

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, did not return from the campaign trail to vote, but has supported the measure.

Mr. Obama did not find political cover from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, his former rival for the Democratic nomination, who voted against the bill with 27 other Democrats.

Mrs. Clinton said she recognized the need to overhaul FISA but that the bill did not “contain safeguards to protect the rights of Americans against abuse [or] preserve clear lines of oversight and accountability over this administration.”

“I respect my colleagues who reached a different conclusion on today’s vote,” she said. “I do so because this is a difficult issue. Nonetheless, I could not vote for the legislation in its current form.”

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican and vice chairman of the intelligence committee, said his colleagues chose national security over politics.

“This is the balance we need to protect our civil liberties without handcuffing our terror fighters,” he said. “This bill gives our intelligence operators and law-enforcement officials the tools they need to conduct surveillance on foreign terrorists in foreign countries planning to conduct attacks inside the United States, against our troops and against our allies.”

No Republicans opposed the bill.

It had support from 21 Democrats, 47 Republicans and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. The “no” votes were cast by 27 Democrats and independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

The House passed the bill by a vote of 293-129 last month.

The provision granting immunity to phone companies, which face more than 40 lawsuits for violating privacy rights, survived votes on three amendments that would have nixed it.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, a chief opponent of the immunity clause and a one-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said he would “never try to guess the motives” behind Mr. Obama’s switch.

“There were some improvements to [privacy-rights safeguards] and he was satisfied that was enough,” Mr. Dodd said. “I wasn’t. That is a difference of opinion.”

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