Bush's Phone Immunity Demand Wins Initial Senate Vote

By Reuters -  |  Posted 2007-12-17 Print this article Print

President George W. Bush's demand for immunity for telephone companies that participated in his warrantless domestic spying program won an initial vote in the Senate.

WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush's demand for immunity for telephone companies that participated in his warrantless domestic spying program won an initial vote on Monday in the Senate.

On a vote of 76-10, far more than the 60 votes needed to keep the bill alive, the Democratic-led Senate cleared a procedural hurdle and began considering a bill to increase congressional and judicial oversight of the electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists.

It includes a provision to grant retroactive immunity to any telecommunications company that participated in Bush's domestic spying program — surveillance of telephone calls in the United States without prior warrants — begun shortly after the September 11 attacks on the United States. Nearly 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T, Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp. of violating U.S. privacy rights.

Backers of immunity, who include some Democrats as well many of Bush's fellow Republicans, contend companies should be thanked, not punished, for helping defend the United States. But civil liberties advocates and a number of Democratic lawmakers argue the courts should determine if any company violated the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans.


"If companies didn't follow this law, and cooperated with illegitimate requests for sensitive information, then we should not hand them a 'get out of jail free' card after the fact," said Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.

Regardless of Monday's initial Senate vote, Democrats vow to offer amendments to remove the immunity provision while backing the new surveillance safeguards that enjoy broad support.

Sixty votes will likely be needed to prevail on any such amendment in the 100-member Senate. "It's going to be an uphill battle," a Democratic aide said.

A Senate vote on passage of the bill is expected before Congress adjourns for the year at the end of this week.

The House of Representatives last month defied Bush and refused to shield phone companies from lawsuits. Both chambers would have to agree to immunity before it could be granted.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requires that the government receive the approval of a secret FISA court to conduct surveillance in the United States of suspected foreign enemy targets.

But shortly after the September 11 attacks, Bush secretly authorized warrantless surveillance of communications between people in the United States and others overseas if one of the parties were deemed by surveillance agencies to have suspected ties to terrorists.

Critics charged that Bush's action violated FISA, but he argued he had the war-time powers to do so. In January, Bush put the program under FISA's authority. Terms remain secret.

In August, Congress bowed to the administration demands and expanded the government's power to conduct surveillance without a court order.

The Senate bill would provide new protections of civil liberties, such as requiring tougher congressional and judicial oversight. It would specifically mandate court review to target Americans when they are overseas.

(Editing by Patricia Zengerle and Frances Kerry)

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