Panel reviews eavesdropping compromise

Measure strengthens court oversight, gives immunity to firms

October 19, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Intelligence Committee met late yesterday to review proposed compromise legislation that would strengthen court oversight of eavesdropping on Americans while granting telephone and Internet companies legal immunity for their role in assisting government surveillance programs since 2001.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the Democratic chairman, and Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the Republican vice chairman, reached a tentative agreement Wednesday on the compromise measure. But some Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, objected to the immunity and the fate of the proposal was uncertain.

House Democrats have also raised questions about the compromise, which emerged after the Bush administration agreed to share documents related to the secret eavesdropping program with the Senate committee. Other committees have demanded access to the same documents.

In addition, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who is running for president, announced on his campaign Web site yesterday that he would put a hold on the proposed bill. That legislative maneuver would create another obstacle to passage.

The Senate compromise proposal is similar to a bill proposed by House Democrats in many key respects. Both plans would allow the National Security Agency to seek blanket or "bundled" warrants for foreign-based communications, rather than individual warrants, but they would give the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court a bigger role in the process than did the measure passed hurriedly by Congress before its August recess.

The main difference between the two plans comes down to the question of giving immunity to the major telephone carriers - AT&T and Verizon - that are now being sued over their roles in the eavesdropping program after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The House bill does not grant immunity.

The legislation would replace the August measure that was approved in the final hours before Congress went on its summer recess after heated warnings from the administration that legal loopholes in wiretapping coverage had left the country vulnerable to another terrorist attack. That measure, known as the Protect America Act, expires in February.

Dodd, announcing his hold on the proposed legislation, described the immunity proposal as "amnesty for telecommunications companies that enabled the president's assault on the Constitution by providing personal information on their customers without judicial authorization."

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