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Senate Approves Wiretapping Bill

July 10, 2008

WASHINGTON _ The Senate overwhelmingly approved a foreign intelligence surveillance bill Wednesday that sets new terms for how the government can spy on suspected terrorists and provides retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies for participating in the government’s program to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, voted for the measure after previously voting for an amendment that would have eliminated the retroactive immunity for the telecom firms. The amendment and two other similar measures failed. Obama, who earlier this year vowed to filibuster the legislation over the immunity issue, has been sharply criticized in recent days by some of his most ardent supporters for changing his mind on the issue.

The Senate voted 69-28 for the overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the broadest changes to the law since it was enacted 30 years ago. The measure now goes to President George W. Bush, who says he will sign it.

The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, whose campaign attacked Obama over his changed posture, spent the day campaigning in Pennsylvania and Ohio. McCain supported the bill but did not vote on it.

Some 40 lawsuits alleging violations of telephone customers’ civil liberties have been filed, seeking billions of dollars in damages from such companies as Sprint Nextel Corp. and AT&T Inc. With passage of the bill, those suits are now almost certain to be dismissed.

Bush directed telecom companies to tap certain phone and computer lines following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, without the permission of a secret court created to approve wiretaps placed domestically for intelligence gathering. The New York Times reported about the secret wiretapping in 2005.

Under the revised law, the government will be able to conduct emergency wiretapping for a week, but then it must get the FISA court to approve any extension of the eavesdropping. The bill also gives the government the power to intercept communications of foreign groups with broad intercept orders.

Bush praised the passage of the bill, calling it a “vital piece of legislation that will make it easier for this administration and future administrations to protect the American people.”

Obama voiced opposition to the bill, but recently pledged to support it, although he said it is “far from perfect” and fails to resolve concerns over abuses of executive power. Thousands of his supporters posted messages on his Internet campaign site to criticize Obama’s support for the bill.

The provision to allow retroactive immunity weakens the act by failing to demand accountability for past abuses, Obama said. However, the compromise bill allows the FISA court to act as a monitor to prevent abuses of the civil liberties of the public, he said.

“The ability to monitor and track individuals who want to attack the United States is a vital counterterrorism tool, and I’m persuaded that it is necessary to keep the American people safe,” Obama said. “Given the choice between voting for an improved yet imperfect bill, and losing important surveillance tools, I’ve chosen to support the current compromise.”

Obama pledged that if he is elected president he would have his attorney general conduct a review of all surveillance programs.

McCain told reporters in Pennsylvania that Obama’s change in position was not the first flip-flop.

“Sen. Obama and I are still in strong disagreement on the issue of immunity for the telecommunications corporations,” McCain said.

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the passage of the bill, saying that the measure rides roughshod over the Constitution by allowing the FISA court to review only procedures for spying instead of individual warrants. The court will make decisions without knowing specifics about who will be wiretapped, the ACLU said.

“The bill further trivializes court review by authorizing the government to continue a surveillance program even after the government’s general spying procedures are found insufficient or unconstitutional by the (court),” the organization said in a statement. “The government has the authority to wiretap through the entire appeals process, and then keep and use whatever information was gathered in the meantime.”

The vote Wednesday followed hours of debate.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., said the bill is critical to the nation’s security and would strengthen the ability of the government to conduct surveillance of terrorists. Rockefeller said the bill would also grant new oversights and protections for the civil liberties of Americans, by insuring a review by the FISA court before surveillance is conducted. Sen Kit Bond, R-Mo., said the bill would not allow surveillance of innocent Americans. Unless a person has al-Qaeda “on speed dial,” that person would not be put under surveillance, Bond said.

Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn., spoke against the provision to allow immunity for the telecom companies.

Feingold said that “it could not be clearer that this program broke the law, and this president broke the law. Not only that, but this administration affirmatively misled Congress and the American people about it for years before it finally became public.”

“I sit on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and I am one of the few members of this body who has been fully briefed on the warrantless wiretapping program. And, based on what I know, I can promise that if more information is declassified about the program in the future, as is likely to happen . . . members of this body will regret that we passed this legislation.”

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(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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