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Bush wants to protect telecomm companies { February 12 2008 }

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President Bush has called on Congress to rapidly renew the surveillance authority granted to the federal government in the Protect America Act approved last year. But he has vowed to veto any bill that does not shield the companies that helped the government carry out the warrantless wiretapping program he ordered after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Senate Approves Surveillance Bill, Preserves Telecom Immunity

By William Branigin and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 12, 2008; 2:53 PM

The Senate voted today to preserve retroactive immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that cooperated with a government eavesdropping program, decisively rejecting an amendment that would have stripped the provision from a bill to modernize an electronic surveillance law.

Senators voted 67 to 31 to shelve the amendment offered by Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). A filibuster-proof 60 votes had been needed for the amendment to move forward.

The vote represented a victory for the Bush administration and a number of telecommunications companies -- including AT&T and Sprint Nextel -- that face dozens of lawsuits from customers seeking billions of dollars in damages.

Approval of the amendment would have exposed the companies to privacy lawsuits for helping the administration monitor the calls of suspected terrorists without warrants from a special court following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The amendment was one of a series the Senate is considering today to modify legislation that would extend the government's authority to carry out electronic surveillance against targets outside the United States.

President Bush has called on Congress to rapidly renew the surveillance authority granted to the federal government in the Protect America Act approved last year. But he has vowed to veto any bill that does not shield the companies that helped the government carry out the warrantless wiretapping program he ordered after the Sept. 11 attacks.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed against U.S. telecommunications companies by plaintiffs who alleged that the firms' actions violated wiretapping and privacy laws.

Immunity from such lawsuits must also be approved by the House, which does not provide such protection in its version of the bill.

The Senate bill is aimed at modernizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The Protect America Act last year gave the government expanded authority to carry out surveillance, but its provisions expired Feb. 1. Congress and Bush agreed to an extension that runs out Friday.

In debate on the Senate floor before the vote, Dodd said it was a bad precedent to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies, and he urged senators to "allow the courts to do their job."

Arguing against the amendment, Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) said that permitting lawsuits against the companies would lead to public disclosure of vital intelligence-gathering methods and would discourage the private sector from cooperating with the government in the future. He said the companies facing lawsuits had acted "in good faith," and he called the immunity provision "an essential part of this bill."

Seventeen Democrats and one independent joined 49 Republicans in voting against the Dodd-Feingold amendment. Among those voting with the majority was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who is battling for the Democratic nomination, voted in favor of the amendment. His chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), did not vote.

Civil liberties groups denounced the Senate's action.

"When companies break the law, they should be held accountable by our government -- not given a multimillion-dollar favor," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office. "The millions of Americans who are telecom customers deserve to know that their phone conversations are private."

In a statement, she charged that telecommunications companies "illegally turned over private customer call information to the government." But instead of "having faith in the U.S. court system to fairly handle these cases," she said, the Senate opted to "give the telecom providers a get-out-of-jail-free card."

The Senate today also rejected two other amendments aimed at diluting the immunity provision. One would have allowed the lawsuits to go forward but would have made the federal government--not the telecommunications companies--the defendant in those cases. The measure, co-sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), was rejected 68 to 30.

The other rejected amendment, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would have authorized the secret FISA court, which oversees federal surveillance of foreign intelligence and terrorism suspects inside the United States, to decide whether a company could be sued for providing customers' records to the government. It was defeated by a vote of 57 to 41.

2008 The Washington Post Company

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