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SENATE OKAYS TELECOM IMMUNITY

The Senate Tuesday approved a sweeping measure that would expand the government's clandestine surveillance powers, delivering a key victory to the White House.

The bill includes immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that cooperated with intelligence agencies in domestic spying after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

On a 68-29 vote, the Senate approved the reauthorization of a law that would give the government greater powers to eavesdrop in terrorism and intelligence cases without obtaining warrants from a secret court.

Florida's senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson, voted for the bill.

The Senate's action, which comes days before a temporary surveillance law expires Friday, sets up a clash with House Democrats, who have previously approved legislation that does not contain immunity for the telecommunications industry. The two chambers have been locked in a standoff over the immunity provision ever since the House vote Nov. 15, with President Bush demanding the protection for the industry.

House leaders vowed again Tuesday to oppose that provision until the White House releases more information on the warrantless surveillance program it initiated after the terrorist attacks.

Bush applauded the Senate bill and warned House Democrats to put aside "narrow partisan concerns" on the immunity issue and approve the Senate's version.

The House and Senate bills include major revisions to the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which established a secret court to issue warrants for domestic spying on suspects in terrorism and intelligence cases. The National Security Agency, however, secretly bypassed the court for years as it obtained information from telecommunication companies, until media reports revealed the arrangement.

The most important change approved by the Senate on Tuesday would make permanent a law approved in August that expanded the government's authority to intercept - without a court order - the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States communicating with others overseas.

U.S. intelligence agencies previously had broad leeway to monitor the communications of foreign terrorism suspects, but required warrants to monitor calls intercepted in the United States, regardless of where the calls began or ended.

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