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Senate delays vote on spy bill
Robert Lemos, SecurityFocus 2007-12-18

The U.S. Senate's majority leader postponed on Monday the debate regarding controversial legislation designed to modernize the United States' legal framework for eavesdropping on phone calls and Internet communications, and which would have granted telecommunications companies immunity from lawsuits over their alleged past cooperation with the Bush Administration's warrantless surveillance program.

The legislation, dubbed the FISA Amendments Act of 2007, would update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) passed nearly three decades ago. The bill would allow government agents to eavesdrop on communications for as long as a year, if the effort is jointly authorized by the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence and if the targeted person is located outside the United States. Unlike an alternative bill, the FISA Amendments Act would also controversially grant telecommunications firms retroactive immunity from lawsuits for past cooperation with the U.S. government -- a provision widely sought after by the Bush Administration.

In delaying the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that the legislation is too controversial not to have a proper debate.

"The Senate is committed to improving our nation’s intelligence laws to fight terrorism while protecting Americans’ civil liberties," Reid said in a statement following the decision. "We need to take the time necessary to debate a bill that does just that, rather than rushing one through the legislative process."

The statement marks the end of the latest chapter in a contentious debate that began two years ago when the New York Times reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) had eavesdropped on the Internet activities and phone calls of U.S. citizens as well as foreign terrorism targets without seeking the warrant required by law. Many telecommunications companies allegedly cooperated with the U.S. government and have faced lawsuits as a result.

Earlier on Monday, Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) argued that foiling the immunity provision is not about holding just the telecommunications companies accountable, but the Bush Administration as well. The current administration has argued that wiretapping domestic calls without a warrant is part of the president's constitutional right to defend the country. Yet, whether that legal argument stands up in court will not be known unless the telecommunications companies are held accountable, Dodd stated.

"If this bill passes in its current form, we will never know -- the president’s favored corporations will be immune," Dodd said in a statement. "Their arguments will never be heard in a court of law. The details of their actions will stay hidden. The truth behind this unprecedented domestic spying will never see light."

The White House has maintained that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), under which all eavesdropping not related to law enforcement is supposed to be conducted, needs to be modernized. The Protect America Act passed in August gives the Bush Administration the requested powers, but it expires in February 2008.

"Allowing this law to lapse would open gaps in our intelligence and increase the danger to our country," President Bush said in comments earlier this month. "Our intelligence professionals need these tools to keep our people safe, and they need Congress to ensure that these tools are not taken away."

Opponents of the telecom immunity provision chalked up the delay in the passage of the bill as a win for citizens' privacy and a loss for the White House.

"We applaud Senator Reid for allowing the full Senate to take the time to carefully consider the dangers of granting amnesty to the phone companies who have blatantly violated their customers' privacy for over six years," Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said in a statement. "Over the holiday break we hope that many Senators will listen to their constituents who want them to stand up for the Fourth Amendment."

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures, adding "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

More than a dozen amendments, including stripping out the retroactive immunity provision, will be debated on when the FISA Amendments Act is again considered in January.

Senator Reid has voiced his opposition to granting retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies.

"I again encourage the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General to make available to all Senators the relevant documents on retroactive immunity, so that each may reach an informed decision on how to proceed on this provision," Reid said in his statement.

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