Senate OKs FISA Bill, Immunity For Telecom Firms

The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved an update of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), bringing to an end a 15-month battle over revamping electronic surveillance rules. The bill would grant retroactive immunity for telecom companies that cooperated with warrentless wiretaps.

It was a major legislative victory for President Bush, who hailed the bill's passage in the White House Rose Garden.

"This legislation shows that even in an election year we can come together and get important pieces of legislation passed," Bush said.

The president said he'd soon sign the surveillance update into law. He'd earlier threatened to veto any bill that did not include a provision shielding phone companies from lawsuits for taking part in warrantless wiretapping. The bill — which the House approved last month — effectively provides such legal immunity, though some senators tried to strip that provision. The Senate approved the bill by a 69-28 vote.

The measure would provide immunity for telecom firms. But that immunity would be granted only after they showed district court documents proving they were instructed by the government to take part in a program that went around the congressionally mandated FISA court. This covert spying program was exposed in December 2005 by The New York Times. The Bush administration had been directing phone companies to eavesdrop without the FISA court's permission since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001.

Missouri Republican Kit Bond cast the immunity provision as an act of justice by Congress.

"It would be unfair and potentially disastrous to use our patriotic electronic carriers as punching bags to try to get at the administration," Bond said.

And Utah Republican Orrin Hatch suggested that some 40 lawsuits brought against firms such as AT&T and Verizon were really aimed at revealing the government's surveillance methods.

"Simply put, you don't tell your enemies how you track them. That is why the [National Security Agency] and other government agencies won't say they do, how they do it or who they watch — nor should they," Hatch said. "To confirm or deny any of these activities, which are at the heart of the civil lawsuits, would hurt or harm the national security."

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold led an unsuccessful drive to strip the immunity provision from the bill.

'It could not be clearer that this program broke the law, and this president broke the law. Not only that, but this administration affirmatively misled the Congress and the American people about it for years before it finally became public," Feingold said.

And Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter pointed out that 70 senators have not even been briefed on what the warrantless spying program entailed.

"There's an old expression: buying a pig in a poke. It means buying something that you don't know what it is you're buying. Well, that's what the Senate is being asked to do here today — to grant retroactive immunity to a program where the members don't know what the program is," Specter said.

Unlike New York Democrat Hillary Clinton, who voted against the bill, her former Democratic presidential rival, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), voted for it.

Republican presidential contender John McCain spent the day campaigning.

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