The Senate late Monday delayed its consideration of a vote on a new government eavesdropping bill until January.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid delayed the bill because there were more than a dozen amendments planned, and not enough time left on the legislative calendar to manage them.
"Everyone feels it would be to the best interests of the Senate that we take a look at this when we come back after the first of the year," said Reid, D-Nev.
"With more than a dozen amendments to this complex and controversial bill, this legislation deserves time for thorough discussion on the floor," he said.
The new surveillance bill is meant to replace a temporary eavesdropping law Congress hastily passed in August. That law, which expanded the government's authority to listen in on American communications without court permission, expires Feb. 1.
The White House expressed disappointment with the delay.
"There will be very little time to accomplish this when Congress returns in January," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Monday night. "Each day of delay brings us closer to reopening a dangerous intelligence gap that we closed last summer."
Senators clashed Monday in hours of debate over whether the government's need to eavesdrop on potential terrorists outweighs Americans' expectations that their private communications are protected.
The Senate was grappling with how to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that dictates when federal agents must obtain court permission before tapping phone and computer lines inside the United States to gather intelligence on foreign threats. Agents may tap lines without court permission outside the country.
Immunity for telecommunications companies?
The most contentious question is whether telecommunications companies that helped the government tap American communications after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks should be granted immunity from lawsuits stemming from their actions. The surveillance was done without permission from the secret court created 30 years ago to protect Americans from unwarranted government intrusions on their privacy.
Senate leaders hoped to decide this week whether to shield the telecommunications companies from the roughly 40 pending civil lawsuits alleging violations of communications and wiretapping laws. The White House says if the cases go forward they could reveal information that would compromise national security. If they succeed, the companies could be bankrupted.
The companies were helping the Bush administration carry out the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program, a still classified effort that intercepted communications on U.S. soil without oversight from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from Sept. 11 to January 17, 2007.
"For the last six years, our largest telecom companies have been spying on their own American customers," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
Dodd spoke for several hours and threatened a filibuster, vowing to use "all the tools" at his disposal to prevent the bill's passage. After Democratic leaders pulled the bill, he issued a statement saying, "Today we have scored a victory for American civil liberties and sent a message to President Bush that we will not tolerate his abuse of power and veil of secrecy."
"This program is one of the worst abuses of executive power in our nation's history," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis. "It's time for congress to state, when we pass a law we mean what we said," Feingold said.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said he believes the TSP was legal and "essential to prevent further terrorist attacks against our homeland." The companies helped out of concern for the country's security after the terrorist attacks, he said.
The White House threatened Monday to veto any bill that does not contain a retroactive immunity provision. The Senate Intelligence Committee's version of the bill provides it; a competing version from the Judiciary Committee does not.
The House recently approved a surveillance bill that does not provide retroactive immunity.
Multiple efforts were under way Monday to craft alternative immunity provisions. Among the potential amendments is one by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who wants the U.S. government to stand in for telecommunications companies as the defendant in the cases. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected putting such a provision in its version of the bill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also introduced an immunity amendment that would leave it to the 15 judges on the FISA court to decide whether the companies merit protection from lawsuits. The court, which was not consulted on the electronic surveillance at the center of the debate, would determine whether the government's written requests to the telecommunications companies were legal. If not, it would determine whether the telecommunications companies believed they were complying with a good-faith request from the government.
‘Fraught with risks’
The White House issued a statement Monday night protesting the Feinstein amendment.
"Adding a review by the FISA court to the existing certification process in the Intelligence Committee bill is not acceptable," Fratto said. "Imposing such a procedure is unnecessary and fraught with risks."
The White House wants a permanent rewrite of FISA, contending that changes in telecommunications technology have made the law an obstacle to intelligence gathering. FISA requires the government to obtain court approval before conducting electronic surveillance on U.S. soil, even if the target is a foreign citizen in a foreign country.
However, many purely international communications are now routed through fiber-optic cables and computers in the United States.