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Senate passes surveillance bill, keeps telecom immunity

Bill goes to Bush for his signature

By Grant Gross
July 9, 2008 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate today voted to extend a controversial National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program that targeted terrorism suspects as well as U.S. residents, and it will likely provide legal immunity to telecommunications carriers that participated in the program.

The Senate voted 69-28 to approve the bill, which would provide some additional court oversight to an NSA program that dates back to 2001. The legislation, supported by President George W. Bush, could extend the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program, which targets electronic communications such as phone calls and e-mail, until the end of 2012.

The bill, called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act, now goes to Bush for his signature. The bill is "critical to our nation's security," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Several senators, most of them Democrats, attempted to take out or weaken the telecom immunity provisions in the bill, but the Senate voted to defeat three such amendments earlier today.

The amendments would have upset a delicate compromise on the bill between members of Congress and the Bush administration, said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.). While many Democrats expressed anger about the immunity provisions, their anger should be "redirected toward tearing down our foreign enemy," he said.

The Senate first voted 66-32 to defeat an amendment that would have removed the telecommunications immunity provisions from a bill that extends the surveillance program, which began shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. The surveillance program allegedly allowed the NSA to spy on U.S. residents who communicated with overseas terrorism suspects without first obtaining a warrant.

A second amendment would have required a U.S. District Court to determine if the NSA program was constitutional, and if the program wasn't, would have allowed the more than 40 lawsuits pending against participating telecommunications carriers to move forward. That amendment, offered by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), was defeated 61-37.

A third amendment, offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), would have delayed a decision on whether to dismiss the lawsuits for more than a year while several U.S. agency inspectors general investigated the program. Congress would decide whether to grant immunity after their reports. That amendment was defeated 56-42.

Most senators still don't know the details of the surveillance program, Bingaman said. "We don't know what is it we're granting immunity for," he said. "I think the American people expect Congress to make informed decisions."

Telecommunications immunity provisions are needed to protect companies that helped the U.S. government in a time of need, Bond said. "It is not right to punish patriotic Americans who stepped forward to help our government by subjecting them to the harassment of lawsuits," Bond said.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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