Dems, GOP agree to telecom immunity deal

Dems, GOP agree to telecom immunity deal

Posted: Friday, June 20, 2008 9:22 pm

By PAMELA HESS Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate leaders have agreed to a new compromise surveillance bill that would effectively shield from potentially costly civil lawsuits telecommunications companies that helped the government wiretap citizens’ phone and computer lines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks without court permission. The House will debate the bill today, potentially ending a monthslong standoff about the rules for government wiretapping inside the United States. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said the new bill “balances the needs of our intelligence community with Americans’ civil liberties, and provides critical new oversight and accountability requirements.” The issue of legal protection for telecommunications companies that participated in “warrantless wiretapping” has been the single largest sticking point. The Senate passed a bill that immunized them from lawsuits. The House bill was silent on the matter. The White House threatened to veto any bill that did not shield the companies, which tapped lines at the behest of the president and attorney general — but without permission from a special court established for this very purpose — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. “Warrantless wiretapping” went on for almost six years until it was revealed by the New York Times. Some 40 lawsuits have been filed against the companies by people and groups who think they were illegally eavesdropped on by the government. The compromise bill would have a federal district court review certifications from the attorney general saying the telecommunications companies received presidential orders telling them wiretaps were needed to detect or prevent a terrorist attack. If the paperwork is in order, the judge would dismiss the lawsuit. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the second-ranking Republican, predicted all the cases would go away. “The lawsuits will be dismissed,” he said. There is a small chance of them progressing anyway; the Bush administration has stymied them by invoking its state’s secret privilege to bar evidence from being brought into court. But not all Democrats are falling in line with the telecom immunity compromise. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont said he does not support the immunity deal because it prevents a court from reviewing the legality of the warrantless wiretapping program. The compromise bill also requires several inspectors general to investigate the wiretapping program to determine its extent and legality. The report is due in a year. Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said that passage of the bill by both houses is necessary before August. That’s when the first yearlong surveillance orders approved under a previous surveillance regime will run out. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendment bill also would: • Require FISA court permission to wiretap Americans who are overseas • Prohibit targeting a foreigner to secretly eavesdrop on an American’s calls or e-mails without court approval • Allow the FISA court 30 days to review existing but expiring surveillance orders before renewing them • Allows eavesdropping in emergencies without court approval, provided it is obtained within a week • Prohibit the government from invoking war powers or other authorities to superseding surveillance rules in the future. The new FISA bill, if it becomes law, would expire in 2012. Published in The Messenger 6.20.08

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