Senate Crafts New Rules on Warrantless Spying
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is supposed to be the last week before Congress goes on its holiday break and the Senate is now taking up a very complicated bill, the overhaul of rules governing electronic spying on suspected foreign terrorists.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA was first enacted three decades ago to shield Americans from improper government spying. Now, lawmakers must decide two big issues: First, whether phone companies that provided information to the government without warrants should be given immunity from lawsuits. And second, how to protect Americans abroad from such surveillance.
NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: Less than five months ago, Congress hurriedly passed a temporary electronic surveillance bill. Lawmakers had it expire February 1st, and because they don't expect to get much done in January, there was a real sense of urgency today when the Senate took up the spying legislation.
Still, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold warned his colleagues not to be stampeded again by the Bush administration as he said they were in passing that last FISA bill in August.
Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): That legislation, the so-called Protect America Act, was rushed through this chamber in a climate of fear - fear of terrorist attacks and fear of not appearing sufficiently strong on national security.
WELNA: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell praised Majority Leader Harry Reid for bringing up a version of the FISA overhaul that passed in the intelligence committee under intense pressure from the White House.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): It contains two main ingredients that are needed for a presidential signature, it will allow intelligence professionals to do their jobs, and it will not allow trial lawyers to sue telecom companies that help protect the country.
WELNA: President Bush's supporters portrayed the FISA overhaul as giving intelligence agencies the tools they need to monitor suspected terrorists. But Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse said civil libertarians should all be concerned that under the present law, Americans who travel abroad can be spied on without a court order.
Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): Unless we really believe that this government should have unfettered power to eavesdrop on conversations of families vacationing in Europe or soldiers serving in Iraq, then the authority to spy on Americans abroad cannot be left under the exclusive control of this administration.
WELNA: Nonsense, replied Arizona Republican John Kyl.
Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): No one is on a witch hunt against Americans. There is more material out there to be collected against the foreign targets. Our people certainly don't have the time to try to spy on Americans; that's not what's being - not what's involved here.
WELNA: The other big issue is the legal immunity the intelligence committee still gives the U.S. phone companies that allowed warrantless wiretaps between 2001 and 2006. Democrat Jay Rockefeller chairs the intelligence committee.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): Companies participated at a great risk of exposure and financial ruin for one reason and one reason only -in order to help identify terrorists and prevent follow-on terrorist attacks. They should not be penalized for their willingness to heed the call during the time of national emergency.
WELNA: Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd left the presidential campaign trail in Iowa to oppose the immunity provision for the phone companies. He says they were under no legal obligation to provide access to their telecommunications unless under court order.
Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Their legal departments are not made up of freshmen law students here. It's naive to suggest of how they weren't aware of what the law was here and yet decided to comply; Quest did not. Its legal department felt there should be a court order and said if you give us one, we'll comply with it. Of course, there was never a forthcoming court order which should say something about the intentions of the administration and those who were seeking the access to that information.
WELNA: Dodd and others said should the phone carriers be given immunity, courts will never be able to determine the legality of the surveillance with which those carriers collaborated but prospects for stripping that immunity from the bill look dim as lawmakers race against the clock to get President Bush a bill he'll sign.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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