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Wiretapping bills allow lawsuits to continue
Published: 2007-11-16

Legislation to revise the United States' laws on electronic and Internet surveillance passed both the House of Representatives and a Senate subcommittee on Thursday, escaping language that would sink a raft of lawsuits against telecommunications firms and the Bush Administration for alleged past wiretapping abuses.

Both bills make changes to the current Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), updating the law to allow wiretapping without a specific warrant in cases when U.S. citizens are not involved. The House bill, known as the RESTORE Act, would allow government agents to get a one-year authorization to surveil communications routed through the United States, if none of the parties were a U.S. citizen. The RESTORE Act and the latest Senate bill, passed 10-9 by the Senate's Judiciary Committee on Thursday, do not have any language granting immunity to telecommunications companies. A third bill already passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee would grant immunity to the companies.

The battle over the contentious provision is far from over. The House bill still has to be reconciled with whichever bill passes the Senate, and an immunity provision could be added in an amendment to the bill. For now, the direction of the bills have satisfied digital rights activists.

"We are pleased that the House and a majority of the Judiciary Committee's members have signaled that they want Americans to have their day in court," Kevin Bankston, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a statement. "The fight isn't over yet, however. We look forward to working with Senators Leahy, Specter, and Feingold and other lawmakers in both chambers of Congress to make sure that the bill eventually sent to the president allows the people's lawsuits to go forward."

The legislative battle is just the latest chapter in a nearly two-year saga focusing on the details of the Bush Administration surveillance program. In December 2005, the New York Times reported that the National Security Agency had collected large volumes of phone and Internet traffic with the cooperation of telecommunications firms. Over the next year, a number of U.S. groups and citizens filed lawsuits against the NSA and telecommunications firms, but the Bush Administration has blocked many of the lawsuits by claiming that the details needed for the court cases would harm national security.

President Bush has threatened to veto any bill that does not grant intelligence agents the necessary legal tools to fight terrorism and does not give retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies.

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Posted by: Robert Lemos
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