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US House of Representatives Approves Foreign Surveillance Bill

The House of Representatives has approved legislation updating U.S. foreign intelligence surveillance law. President Bush welcomed the bipartisan compromise measure saying it will improve U.S. capabilities to prevent another terrorist attacks. But as VOA's Dan Robinson reports, some Democratic lawmakers opposed the measure.

In crafting the latest revision of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), House and Senate lawmakers gave President Bush much of what he sought during months of tough negotiations.

The president wanted telecommunications companies to have immunity from possible lawsuits stemming from any cooperation they provided for the counter-terrorist surveillance program he approved after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The program, which involves surveillance of terror suspects without a court warrant, triggered widespread protests and at least 40 lawsuits alleging violations of civil liberties. The program was publicly revealed in media reports in 2005.

The new legislation, which passed the house by a vote of 293-129, does not grant blanket immunity to the phone companies, but does provide for court review of certifications from the U.S. attorney general that companies acted under presidential orders. A judge could then dismiss a lawsuit.

Among key points of the new law, electronic eavesdropping without court approval would be permitted in what are designated as emergencies, allowing the government to submit justifications within one week.

It requires court permission and establishment of probable cause for surveillance of Americans overseas, and prohibits a process in which the communications of a U.S. citizen could be monitored without court approval by targeting a foreigner.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said while the measure is not perfect, overall it helps keep Americans safe and does not violate American's constitutional rights.

"We must have a bill that does not violate the Constitution of the United States, and this bill does not," she said.

"The most important thing is that on a bipartisan basis we have come together on a national security issue to give our intelligence community the tools they need to keep America safe," said Republican Pete Hoekstra, a former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

But many Democrats voiced strong opposition, among them Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

"It does not strike the proper balance between protecting national security and preserving our cherished civil liberties," she said.

In advance of the House vote, President Bush said the legislation will help the U.S. intelligence community protect Americans.

"The enemy that attacked us on September 11 is determined to strike this country again," he said. "It is vital that our intelligence community has the ability to learn who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning."

The president urged the U.S. Senate to take up the intelligence legislation as quickly as possible.

The American Civil Liberties Union described the measure as "disastrous", asserting that it allows for mass and untargeted surveillance of American's communications.