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Senate passes wiretap bill, grants immunity
Published: 2008-02-13

The U.S. Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that would amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the laws governing wiretaps of suspected foreign agents and terrorists, granting retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that had previously cooperated with the government.

Known as the FISA Amendments Act of 2007, or S.B. 2248, the bill passed by a vote of 68 to 29 with three senators, including Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL), failing to vote. Senators had delayed the bill for a month in December 2007, and then extended stop-gap legislation by 15 days to give the legislators more time to debate the measure.

The White House commended the Senate on passing a bill that fell in line with its requested surveillance capabilities, and President Bush told the U.S. House of Representatives that he will not condone any more delays on the legislation.

"Congress has had over six months to discuss and deliberate. The time for debate is over," President Bush said in a statement on Wednesday. "If Republicans and Democrats in the Senate can come together on a good piece of legislation, there is no reason why Republicans and Democrats in the House cannot pass the Senate bill immediately."

The debate over the legality of the U.S. government's surveillance activities, which the Bush Administration refers to as the "Terrorist Surveillance Program," started in December 2005 after the New York Times published an article revealing the program. More than three dozens lawsuits have been filed against the telecommunications companies that cooperated with the U.S. government and the National Security Agency (NSA) -- the federal agency responsible for intelligence and surveillance. Ever since a stop-gap measure giving the Bush Administration significant surveillance powers passed in August, Congress has debated the form of future wiretapping for foreign intelligence.

Civil liberty groups blasted the Senate's actions.

"Immunity for telecom giants that secretly assisted in the NSA's warrantless surveillance undermines the rule of law and the privacy of every American," EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston said in a statement. "Congress should let the courts do their job instead of helping the administration and the phone companies avoid accountability for a half decade of illegal domestic spying."

Leaders in the House and Senate now must reconcile the bills in conference.

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Posted by: Robert Lemos
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