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US Lawmakers Disagree over Terms For Renewing Wiretap Law


President Bush is calling on the U.S. Congress to approve a bill to expand and renew a wiretapping law that is set to expire February 1. Action is pending in the Senate, where lawmakers are divided over whether there should be greater civil liberties' protections in the legislation. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

At issue is the so-called Protect America Act, which authorizes U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor telephone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and suspected terrorists overseas.

The law expires in a week, and President Bush said in a statement Thursday that if the measure is not renewed before then, it would weaken the government's ability to respond quickly to new threats.

Vice President Dick Cheney offered similar comments in a speech in Washington a day earlier. "Fighting the war on terror is a long-term enterprise that requires long-term institutional changes. The challenge to the country has not expired over the last six months. It won't expire anytime soon. And we should not write laws that pretend otherwise," he said.

The White House wants Congress to include a provision to shield telephone companies that cooperated with intelligence agencies in monitoring communications from dozens of pending civil lawsuits alleging violations of wiretapping laws.

But that issue is dividing majority Democrats in the Senate.

Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who recently ended a bid for his party's presidential nomination, is vowing to block any bill that includes immunity for telephone companies. "I am vehemently opposed to that. I would utilize whatever vehicles are available to a senator here to stop that from becoming law with retroactive immunity in it," he said.

But Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, agrees with the White House position. "At the end of the day we have to have the cooperation of the telecommunications companies, and they should not have the threat of a spurious lawsuits hanging over their heads," he said.

Other Democrats sought greater civil liberties' protections in the bill, including a provision to allow a special intelligence court to review government requests for surveillance.

"This bill fails to protect Americans' constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms," said Senator Ted Kennedy is a Massachusetts Democrat.

But many lawmakers say requiring the government to get court approval of surveillance requests will hinder its ability to hunt down terrorists.

"This is unworkable, and would create untenable gaps in our intelligence coverage without significantly improving the privacy of Americans," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Commitee.

The top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri, says the legislation does not need to be amended. "This legislation gives the intelligence community the tools it needs right now and over the next six years to protect our country," he said.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on the legislation Monday. If it approves the bill, the measure would have to be reconciled with a House-passed version, which does not include immunity for telephone companies and would increase oversight of the government's wiretapping activities.

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