House Approves Surveillance Bill, Protects Telecoms

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation that would continue a controversial surveillance program at the U.S. National Security Agency with limited court oversight, while likely ending lawsuits against telecommunications carriers that participated in the program.

The House on Friday voted 293 to 129 to approve a bill that was a compromise between congressional Democrats and U.S. President George Bush.

The bill would extend the NSA surveillance of phone calls and e-mail messages going in and out of the U.S., while giving the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) an opportunity to review Bush administration requests for wide-ranging surveillance powers. The bill, called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act, allows the NSA to receive blanket surveillance orders covering multiple suspects of terrorism and other crimes.

The compromise also sends the dozens of outstanding lawsuits against telecom carriers for their alleged participation in the NSA program to a district court, which will review whether they should be dismissed. The lawsuits would be thrown out if telecom companies can show that the U.S. government issued them orders for the surveillance that were presented as lawful.

U.S. President George Bush has pushed for the legislation, saying it's needed to protect U.S. residents from terrorism. For nearly a year, the Bush administration has called on Congress to pass long-term changes to the nation's surveillance laws. Congress passed temporary surveillance legislation, called the Protect America Act, in August 2007, but its provisions expired in February.

The Bush administration began the NSA surveillance program after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, and the program continued for about four years before news reports revealed its existence.

"Providing this liability protection is critical to the nation's security," wrote U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell in a letter on Thursday to congressional leaders. "Companies in the future may be less willing to assist the government if they face the threat of private lawsuits each time they are believed to have provided assistance."

The U.S. Senate could take up the bill as early as next week. The telecom immunity provisions may face opposition there.

Democrats, the majority party in Congress, were split on the bill, with 105 voting for it and 128 against it. Opponents of the bill argued the NSA program violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures.

The telecom immunity provisions in the bill went too far, said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat. "These provisions turn the judiciary into the [Bush] administration's rubber stamp," she said. "The [court] review that's provided for in this bill is an empty formality that will lead to a preordained conclusion dismissing all cases with no examination of their merit."

Supporters said the bill expands protections of U.S. citizens living overseas by requiring individualized warrants for surveillance of them. The bill also requires a review of the surveillance program by inspector generals of several U.S. agencies, and it will help the U.S. government gather intelligence that will protect U.S. troops overseas, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

"Good intelligence is the first line of defense against terrorism," said Representative Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican.

Representative Daniel Lungren, a California Republican, argued the bill may help prevent the U.S. government from having to send troops overseas to fight terrorists. "This is the single most important bill we will vote on this year," he said.

Digital rights groups urged Congress to reject the compromise bill and its lawsuit protection for telecom carriers that participated in the surveillance program.

"Congress seems to be on the verge of negotiating away our basic constitutional protections," Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington, D.C., legislative office, said during a press conference on Wednesday.

The compromise will give Bush "pretty much unfettered authority to engage in surveillance of Americans," Fredrickson added. "The bill still allows mass, untargeted surveillance of Americans by permitting the government to gather all calls and e-mails coming into and out of the country."

The compromise provides little additional oversight of the surveillance program, Fredrickson said. If there's any delay in the FISA court's approval of a government surveillance request, the NSA can move ahead of surveillance without court oversight, she said.

There are 47 outstanding lawsuits related to the surveillance program and 35 lawsuits with telecoms including AT&T, Verizon Communications and Sprint Nextel as defendants, Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said at the same press conference.

"Congress appears poised to needlessly toss the rule of law out the window and deprive millions of ordinary Americans their day in court," said Bankston, one of the lead attorneys in a class-action lawsuit against AT&T for its alleged participation in the NSA program.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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