- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Senate yesterday passed a broad update of the nation’s spying laws that included a contentious provision that gives telecommunications companies retroactive immunity from eavesdropping on customers.

The action sets up a tense showdown with the House, which passed its own version late last year that doesn’t include the immunity provision.

After several stalled attempts in recent months, the Senate passed a motion by a vote of 67-31 to give legal protection to phone companies that participated in a domestic spying program President Bush began shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The program circumvented a secret court, created 30 years ago as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), that oversees such activities.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T;, Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp. of violating privacy rights while participating in the program. The Bush administration has said that if the cases go forward, information that would compromise national security could be revealed.

Mr. Bush and Capitol Hill Republicans say the immunity provision is necessary because phone companies should not be penalized for helping defend the nation against terrorism.

“It is a bill that protects the country,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “It is a bill that will be signed into law.”

The White House has threatened to veto any bill that doesn’t contain the immunity provision.

Civil liberties activists and many Democrats say Mr. Bush’s program was unconstitutional because warrants weren’t required.

“The Bush-Cheney White House continues to sell us a false choice between security and liberty,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “I reject that choice. … We’re Americans; we can and must have both: security and liberty.”

The Senate also killed an amendment that called for the court cases to go forward but would have substituted the government for the phone companies as the defendant. The measure was sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat.

Also rejected was an amendment sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, that would have given the FISA court the authority to dismiss lawsuits if it found that the companies acted in good faith and on the request of the president or attorney general.

The original 1978 FISA law requires the government to obtain a warrant from a special court to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance in the U.S. But changes in telecommunications technology have forced the government to sometimes obtain warrants to spy abroad, because foreign phone calls and other electronic communications now often travel through U.S. networks.

The Senate passed the overall FISA bill by a vote of 68-29. No Republicans voted against the bills, while 19 Democrats supported it.

Congress in August passed a six-month FISA extension after Democrats and Republicans failed to reach a compromise on the immunity provision. The extension was to expire Feb. 1, but Congress last month agreed to another 15-day extension that expires Saturday.

House Democratic leaders said after the Senate vote that today they will ask for a 21-day extension.

Since August, they have insisted that immunity not be included in any permanent FISA fix. But 21 members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative House Democrats, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, saying they support the Senate version.

House Republican leaders say it is time for Democrats to accept the political reality that any permanent FISA bill must include immunity for telecommunications companies.

“In the face of politically motivated pressure from the radical left, the Senate passed a good, bipartisan bill that will help keep America safe by closing the terrorist loophole in our nation’s surveillance laws,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “After months of stalling, House Democratic leaders should bring it up for a vote immediately.”

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