WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday approved a sweeping measure that would expand the government’s clandestine surveillance powers, delivering a key victory to the White House by approving immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that cooperated with intelligence agencies in domestic spying after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
On a 68 to 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.
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 about the controversial warrantless surveillance program it initiated shortly 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.
“This good bill passed by the Senate provides a long-term foundation for our intelligence community to monitor the communications of foreign terrorists in ways that are timely and effective and that also protect the liberties of Americans,” Bush said.
The House and Senate bills both 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 last 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.
Seventeen Democrats joined 49 Republicans and one independent to reject an amendment offered by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., that would have stripped the immunity provision from the bill.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who is locked in a tight race with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., for the Democratic presidential nomination, opposed immunity for the industry, along with the entire elected Democratic leadership team. Clinton, who has publicly opposed immunity in the past, was campaigning in Tuesday’s primaries and did not attend the vote.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the front-runner for the GOP nomination, supported the overall bill and the immunity provision. Neither Clinton nor Obama were on hand for the vote on final passage of the bill.
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