Telecom shield advances in Senate

Bill would protect firms from lawsuits over NSA wiretaps

December 18, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

WASHINGTON -- Telecommunications companies won a skirmish in the Senate yesterday as a bill to protect them from lawsuits for cooperating with the Bush administration's eavesdropping programs easily overcame a procedural hurdle.

The Senate voted 76-10, with Democrats divided, to advance the bill for consideration. A measure to block it, which was led by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, fell short as those who wanted the bill to reach the floor got 16 votes more than the 60 needed to achieve that goal.

What happens next is not clear. A different bill, which would not grant immunity to the companies, is expected to be introduced by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee. Whatever bill emerges from the Senate might have to be reconciled with a House version that does not include immunity.

The measures are meant to renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, legislation that has deeply divided the White House and Capitol Hill, and members of the House and Senate. Some action is necessary soon because the current FISA law expires in February.

In his unsuccessful bid to block the legislation, Dodd urged his colleagues not to immunize the telecommunications industry for cooperating with the National Security Agency's secret eavesdropping without warrants. The program was disclosed late in 2005 by The New York Times.

"For the last six years, our largest telecommunications companies have been spying on their own American customers," Dodd said. "Secretly and without a warrant, they delivered to the federal government the private, domestic communications records of millions of Americans, records this administration has compiled into a database of enormous scale and scope.

"I have seen six presidents - six in the White House - and I have never seen a contempt for the rule of law equal to this."

Another opponent of the immunization measure, Sen. Russell D. Feingold, called it "deeply flawed."

"This time around, the Senate should stand up to an administration that time and again has employed fear-mongering and misleading statements to intimidate Congress," said Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.

Supporters of the administration's program of warrantless surveillance have described it as necessary to protect Americans from terrorists, and they say the program strikes a sensible balance between national security and personal liberty.

Not all of the 76 senators who voted to advance the bill necessarily agree entirely with the administration. Some probably voted to advance the bill so that they can offer amendments to it.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he would offer an amendment that would substitute the federal government as the defendant in lawsuits in place of the companies.

"The telephone companies have, I believe, acted as good citizens," Specter said.

President Bush has threatened to veto any measure that does not grant immunity to the companies.

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