US passes telecom immunity, eavesdropping rules

10 Jul 2008
00:00

(Associated Press via NewsEdge) The US Senate approved and sent to the White House a bill overhauling controversial rules on secret government eavesdropping Wednesday, bowing to President Bush's demand to protect telecommunications companies from lawsuits complaining they helped the US spy on Americans.

The relatively one-sided vote, 69-28, came only after a lengthy and bitter debate that pitted privacy and civil liberties concerns against the desire to prevent terrorist attacks. It ended almost a year of wrangling over surveillance rules and the president's warrantless wiretapping program that was initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The House passed the same bill last month, and President Bush is expected to sign it soon.

The long fight on Capitol Hill centered on one main question: whether to shield from civil lawsuits any telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on American phone and computer lines without the permission or knowledge of a secret court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The White House had threatened to veto the bill unless it immunized companies such as AT&T and Verizon Communications from wiretapping lawsuits. About 40 such lawsuits have been filed, and all are pending before a single US District court.

Numerous lawmakers had spoken out strongly against the no-warrants eavesdropping on Americans, but the Senate voted its approval after rejecting amendments that would have watered down, delayed or stripped away the immunity provision.

The lawsuits center on allegations that the White House circumvented U.S. law by going around the FISA court, which was created 30 years ago to prevent the government from abusing its surveillance powers for political purposes, as was done in the Vietnam War and Watergate eras. The court is meant to approve all wiretaps placed inside the U.S. for intelligence-gathering purposes. The law has been interpreted to include international email records stored on servers inside the US.

© 2008 The Associated Press

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