Senate Keeps Telecom Immunity in Surveillance Bill

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The U.S. Senate has defeated three amendments that would have removed or weakened lawsuit immunity provisions for telecommunication carriers that allegedly participated in a controversial U.S. National Security Agency surveillance program dating back to 2001.

The Senate on Wednesday first voted 66-32 to defeat an amendment that would have removed the telecom immunity provisions from a bill that extends the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program, which began as a secret program shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. The surveillance program allegedly allowed the NSA to spy on U.S. residents who communicated with overseas terrorism suspects, without first obtaining a warrant.

A second amendment would have required a U.S. district court to determine if the NSA program was constitutional, and if the program wasn't, would have allowed the more than 40 lawsuits pending against participating telecom carriers to move forward. That amendment, offered by Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, was defeated 61-37.

A third amendment, offered by Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, would have delayed a decision on whether to dismiss the lawsuits for more than a year, while several U.S. agency inspectors general investigated the program. Congress would decide whether to grant telecom immunity after the inspectors general reports. That amendment was defeated 56-42.

Most senators still don't know the details of the surveillance program, Bingaman said. "We don't know what is it we're granting immunity for," he said. "I think the American people expect Congress to make informed decisions."

Telecom immunity provisions are needed to protect companies that helped the U.S. government in a time of need, said Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican. "It is not right to punish patriotic Americans who stepped forward to help our government by subjecting them to the harassment of lawsuits," Bond said.

U.S. President George Bush's administration had threatened to veto the bill if telecom immunity provisions were taken out of it, even though Bush has said the surveillance program is crucial to U.S. security. A veto would have, in effect, killed the surveillance program until the administration and Congress could iron out a new compromise.

The Senate is schedule to vote on the full bill, called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act, later Wednesday.

Civil liberties organizations and many Democrats have objected to the NSA program because it was done in secret and allowed surveillance of U.S. residents without court-approved warrants. The program was illegal under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, critics have said.

The FISA Amendments Act is part of a compromise between some congressional Democrats and the administration. It would allow the NSA program to go forward with some court oversight, and it would send the dozens of outstanding lawsuits against telecom carriers for their alleged participation to a district court, which would review whether they should be dismissed.

The lawsuits would be thrown out if telecom companies show that they were told by government officials that surveillance orders were legal.

Opponents of the bill argued Wednesday that telecom immunity allows the Bush administration and telecom carriers to get away with illegal activity. The telecom immunity provisions would be a congressional power grab from the U.S. court system, which is supposed to decide constitutional issues, said Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and sponsor of the amendment to strip out the immunity provisions.

"It's not our business as a jury or a judge to determine the legality of what occurred here," Dodd said. "That's what the issue is here, the rule of law or the rule of men."

The underlying bill contains loopholes that would allow the government to spy on U.S. residents without court authority, added Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat. The bill would allow surveillance in emergency situations without court orders for a brief time.

"We're talking about spying on U.S. citizens," Cantwell said. The legislation is "unacceptable and contrary to American values."

Bond, the Missouri Republican, disagreed, saying the bill requires surveillance of U.S. residents to be approved by the FISA court. "Unless you have Al Qaeda on speed dial, you're not going to be [monitored]," he said.

Senator Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee for president, voted for all three amendments. Some supporters had expressed concerns that he would backtrack on his opposition to telecom immunity.

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