Legislation to revise U.S. surveillance law survived a key test vote in
the Senate Wednesday, despite opposition from some majority Democrats
to a provision protecting telephone companies from possible privacy
lawsuits. The Senate could give final approval to the bill and send it
to President Bush for his signature before a congressional recess next
week. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.
Senators voted 80 to 15 to proceed to the legislation - 20 more than the 60 votes necessary under Senate rules.
bill, which updates the 1978 Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act
(FISA), would expand the government's powers to eavesdrop on terrorism
suspects while at the same time take steps to safeguard civil liberties.
have produced a strong, smart policy that will meet the needs of our
intelligence community and protect America's cherished civil
liberties," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and
chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The bill would
grant retroactive legal immunity to telephone companies that allegedly
took part in the Bush administration's warrantless wiretap program
following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks - but only after a
federal court determines they received legitimate requests from the
government to participate in the program.
That provision has
some Democrats furious. "This bill is not a compromise. It is a
capitulation. This bill will effectively and unjustifiably grant
immunity to companies that allegedly participated in an illegal
wiretapping program," said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.
Phone companies face some 40 lawsuits over their reported participation in the wiretap program.
bill also would require government authorities to obtain individual
court orders to wiretap Americans who are outside the United States and
require a special court to give advance approval to the government's
procedures for wiretapping operations.
At least one Republican,
Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, takes issue with that provision. "The idea
that the executive branch of the government needs the explicit approval
of the judiciary branch before collecting foreign intelligence
information from foreign citizens in foreign countries is simply
wrong-headed, and is contrary to our constitutional principles," he
The bill would allow electronic eavesdropping on American
targets without court orders in what are designated as emergency
situations, allowing the government to submit justifications within one
The legislation was overwhelmingly approved by the House
of Representatives last week, and President Bush has said he would sign
it. The measure would replace a temporary surveillance law that had
expired in February.