Telephone companies that took part in President George W. Bush's warrantless domestic spying program would receive retroactive immunity from lawsuits under a bill approved on Tuesday by the Democratic-led Senate.
On a largely party-line vote, the Senate sent the measure, which would also tighten controls on electronic surveillance, to the House of Representatives for a certain fight over whether the House will also approve it.
About 40 civil lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. of violating Americans' privacy rights in helping the government's warrantless domestic spying program started shortly after the September 11 attacks on the United States.
President Bush has promised to veto any new surveillance bill that does not protect the companies that helped the government in its warrantless wiretapping program, arguing that it is essential if the private sector is to give the government the help it needs.
At issue is the government's post-9/11 Terrorist Surveillance Program, which circumvented a secret court created 30 years ago to oversee such activities. The court was part of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law written in response to government abuse of its surveillance authority against Americans.
The surveillance law has been updated repeatedly since then, most recently last summer. Congress hastily adopted a FISA modification in August in the face of dire warnings from the White House that changes in telecommunications technology and FISA court rulings were dangerously constraining the government's ability to intercept terrorist communications.
Shortly after its passage, privacy and civil liberties groups said the new law gave the government unprecedented authority to spy on Americans, particularly those who communicate with foreigners.
Separate voice vote
In a separate voice vote Tuesday, the Senate expanded the power of the court to oversee government eavesdropping on Americans. The amendment would give the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court the authority to monitor whether the government is complying with procedures designed to protect the privacy of innocent Americans whose telephone or computer communications are captured during surveillance of a foreign target.
The bill would also require FISA court orders to eavesdrop on Americans who are overseas. Under current law, the government can wiretap or search the possessions of anyone outside the United States — even a soldier serving overseas — without court permission if it believes the person may be a foreign agent.
"You don't lose your rights when you leave American soil," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in an interview. Wyden wrote the provision into the bill when it was still being considered by the Senate Intelligence Committee. "In the digital age, an American's rights shouldn't depend on their physical geography."