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Bill to Overhaul US Wiretap Law Clears Senate Hurdle

By Deborah Tate
26 June 2008

Legislation to revise U.S. surveillance law survived a key test vote in the Senate Wednesday, despite opposition from some majority Democrats to a provision protecting telephone companies from possible privacy lawsuits. The Senate could give final approval to the bill and send it to President Bush for his signature before a congressional recess next week. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Senators voted 80 to 15 to proceed to the legislation - 20 more than the 60 votes necessary under Senate rules.

The bill, which updates the 1978 Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA), would expand the government's powers to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects while at the same time take steps to safeguard civil liberties.

"We have produced a strong, smart policy that will meet the needs of our intelligence community and protect America's cherished civil liberties," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The bill would grant retroactive legal immunity to telephone companies that allegedly took part in the Bush administration's warrantless wiretap program following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks - but only after a federal court determines they received legitimate requests from the government to participate in the program.

That provision has some Democrats furious. "This bill is not a compromise. It is a capitulation. This bill will effectively and unjustifiably grant immunity to companies that allegedly participated in an illegal wiretapping program," said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.

Phone companies face some 40 lawsuits over their reported participation in the wiretap program.

The bill also would require government authorities to obtain individual court orders to wiretap Americans who are outside the United States and require a special court to give advance approval to the government's procedures for wiretapping operations.

At least one Republican, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, takes issue with that provision. "The idea that the executive branch of the government needs the explicit approval of the judiciary branch before collecting foreign intelligence information from foreign citizens in foreign countries is simply wrong-headed, and is contrary to our constitutional principles," he said.

The bill would allow electronic eavesdropping on American targets without court orders in what are designated as emergency situations, allowing the government to submit justifications within one week.

The legislation was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives last week, and President Bush has said he would sign it. The measure would replace a temporary surveillance law that had expired in February.


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