WASHINGTON — House and Senate leaders have agreed to a compromise surveillance bill that would effectively shield from civil lawsuits the telecommunications companies that helped the government wiretap phone and computer lines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks without court permission.
The House was expected to pass the bill today, potentially ending a monthslong standoff about the rules for government wiretapping inside the United States.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said the bill "balances the needs of our intelligence community with Americans' civil liberties and provides critical new oversight and accountability requirements."
The Senate passed a bill that immunized telecommunications companies from lawsuits, but the House bill was silent on the matter.
The White House threatened to veto any bill that did not shield the companies, which tapped lines at the behest of the president and attorney general but without permission from a special court established for that purpose, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Warrantless wiretapping went on for almost six years until it was revealed by the New York Times. Some 40 lawsuits have been filed against the companies by people and groups who think the government illegally eavesdropped on them.
The compromise bill would have a federal district court review certifications from the attorney general saying the telecommunications companies received presidential orders telling them wiretaps were needed to detect or prevent a terrorist attack. If the paperwork was in order, the judge would dismiss the lawsuit.