The Senate granted at least a temporary victory to the White House on Thursday, turning back an attempt to increase court oversight of the government's surveillance of phone calls and e-mails that involve people inside the United States.
The 60-36 vote to reject increased powers for the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court came as senators worked against a Feb. 1 deadline to extend the law governing how U.S. intelligence agencies carry out electronic eavesdropping.
Further action on the legislation was delayed until Monday, pushing Congress closer to the deadline, and leaving unresolved the most contentious issue in the bill: whether to grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government conduct warrantless surveillance.
The Bush administration is insisting that any new law protect from potentially crippling civil lawsuits those telecom companies that helped the government eavesdrop on Americans after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev., blamed Republicans for the delay, saying they were trying to block a series of amendments majority Democrats sought to offer.
"It appears the president and Republicans want failure. They don't want a bill," Reid said.
Updating a 30-year-old act
The draft bill, written by the Senate Intelligence Committee, would update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The law, first enacted in 1978, 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 outside the country without court oversight.
It was the second time in six weeks the Senate had taken up the FISA modernization bill, only to see action stymied. Reid abruptly closed down debate in December when it became clear the Senate couldn't finish work before the holiday break.
Most vexing to the intelligence agencies, without an extension of the law the government this summer would return to needing individual court orders to listen in on any communication that passes through U.S. telecommunications switches and computer servers — even those that are between people who are outside the country. This is not required by FISA, according to legal experts, but became the practice over time to provide firms with legal protections.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., on Thursday proposed extending the existing law for 30 days to buy the Senate additional time to produce a bill. The House completed its version of the bill last fall.
House members to get secret documents
In a move to resolve the immunity issue, the key impasse on the legislation, the White House ended months of resistance Thursday and agreed to give House members access to secret documents about its warrantless wiretapping program.
The Bush administration is trying to persuade the House to agree to retroactively shield from liability those companies that helped the government eavesdrop on Americans without the approval of the FISA court. About 40 such civil lawsuits are pending against telecommunications firms, and the administration says if the cases go forward they could reveal information that would compromise national security. It also contends that the companies could be bankrupted if the lawsuits are successful.
The companies were helping the administration carry out the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program, a still-classified effort that intercepted communications on U.S. soil without oversight from the FISA court from Sept. 11, 2001, to Jan. 17, 2007.
Reyes and Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House intelligence panel, requested access to the White House documents in May. House Democrats say they will not support telecom immunity without seeing them first. Some senators were given access to the documents last fall.
The documents include the president's authorization of warrantless wiretapping, Justice Department legal opinions going back to 2001, and the requests sent to the telecommunications companies asking for their assistance.