Senate OKs FISA Bill, Immunity For Telecom Firms The Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that protects telecommunications companies from liability for participating in the warrantless domestic spying program begun after the Sept. 11 attacks. The president is expected to sign the bill.

Senate OKs FISA Bill, Immunity For Telecom Firms

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The Senate has finally ended a bitter 15-month battle over electronic spying. Today, it passed and updated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, 69 votes to 28. It was a major victory for President Bush. He says he will sign the bill soon.

GEORGE W: This legislation shows that even in election year, we can come together and get important pieces of legislation passed.

NORRIS: NPR's David Welna reports on how the bill ultimately got passed.

DAVID WELNA: The covert spying program was exposed in December 2005 by The New York Times, and it had been carried out since the 9/11 attacks. Missouri Republican Kit Bond cast the immunity provision as an act of justice by Congress.

KIT BOND: It would be unfair and potentially disastrous to use our patriotic electronic carriers as punching bags to try to get at the administration.

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

ORRIN HATCH: Simply put, you don't tell your enemies how you track them. That is why the NSA and other government agencies won't say what they do, how they do it, or who they watch, nor should they. To confirm or deny any of these activities, which at the heart of the civil lawsuits, would harm national security.

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

RUSS FEINGOLD: It could not be clearer that this program broke the law, and that this president - 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.

WELNA: And Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter pointed out that 70 members of the Senate have not even been briefed on what the warrantless spying program entailed.

ARLEN SPECTER: There's an old expression: buying a pig in a poke. It means buying something but 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.

WELNA: Unlike Hillary Clinton who voted against the bill, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama voted for it. South Dakota Republican John Thune lauded that vote.

JOHN THUNE: I think he's doing the right thing. It certainly would appear to contradict some of the things he's said about it in the past, particularly with regard to immunity. And I think he's getting - you know, he's taking on a little criticism from his base on that. But, you know, I mean, this is the right vote.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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