- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 21, 2008

The House put aside more than a year of partisan wrangling Friday and approved an update of the nation’s foreign surveillance laws, despite calls from civil libertarians and some lawmakers it doesn’t go far enough to protect privacy rights of Americans.

The bill, which the White House endorsed, now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to pass next week.

The bipartisan measure would modernize the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), allowing U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop, without court approval, on foreign targets thought to be outside the United States. It also provides certain retroactive immunity from lawsuits to telephone companies that participated in a post-Sept. 11 surveillance program that operated outside court review.

The measure passed by a vote of 293-129. Only one Republican - Rep. Timothy V. Johnson of Illinois - joined 128 Democrats in voting against the measure. Support came from 105 Democrats and 188 Republicans.

Republican and Democratic negotiators jointly wrote the compromise bill, with input from the White House - a rarity in the highly partisan House.

“America cannot afford a pre-9/11 mentality when it comes to our national security, [so] that is why this bipartisan bill is so critical,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “It recognizes the threats we face, keeps our nation on offense and sends a clear message to our enemies that America is serious about protecting our citizens and our troops.”

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said the bill “gives our intelligence community the tools it needs and the public the civil liberty protections it deserves.”

“While this bill isn’t perfect, the perfect should never be the enemy of the good,” he added.

The legislation would expire at the end of 2012, ensuring Congress would revisit the issue.

The biggest dispute was a Republican demand to grant retroactive immunity to phone companies that participated in President Bush’s contentious domestic spying program. The compromise bill will allow the courts to dismiss any of the 40 pending lawsuits against phone companies if there is written certification the administration asked the companies to take part in the program and were assured it was legal.

The immunity provisions would not apply to government agencies or officials involved in the warrantless surveillance programs, which tapped calls in the United States between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 17, 2007, when the program came under FISA court review.

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

A temporary expansion of FISA laws, which allowed the government to spy on certain people without a warrant, expired in February after congressional party leaders failed on several attempts to pass a new deal.

The immunity provision drew fire from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), saying the bill would pardon phone companies for breaking the law.

“The telecom companies simply have to produce a piece of paper we already know exists, resulting in immediate dismissal. That’s not accountability,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington office.

The Senate in February passed a more controversial FISA update measure by a vote of 67-31, so chamber leaders say they expect the measure to pass.

Both parties’ presidential nominees said they support the bill, though Democrat Barack Obama of Illinois was more equivocal, saying he would try to strip the immunity provision from the bill.

Still, the bill has met some resistance from senators of both parties. Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said he opposes granting immunity to the phone companies just because the administration promised that spying was legal.

The bill “does not require a judicial determination that what the telephone companies have done in the past is constitutional,” said Mr. Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat and member of Senate intelligence panel, said the House deal was not a compromise but a “capitulation.”

“Allowing courts to review the question of immunity is meaningless when the same legislation essentially requires the court to grant immunity.” Mr. Feingold said. “Under this bill, the government can still sweep up and keep the international communications of innocent Americans in the U.S. with no connection to suspected terrorists.”

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