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US Senate Votes to Renew Wiretap Law

The U.S. Senate Tuesday voted to renew a controversial surveillance law set to expire at the end of the week. Lawmakers left intact a provision to shield telephone companies from lawsuits for their role in the Bush administration's wiretap program, despite opposition from many Democrats. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The Senate voted to extend a law which authorizes U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor - without warrants - telephone calls and emails between Americans and suspected terrorists overseas.

Passage came after senators voted down an amendment to deny legal immunity to telephone companies that participated in the administration's wiretapping program after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Senators also rejected two other amendments that would have weakened the immunity provision.

Some 40 lawsuits have been filed against phone companies for allegedly violating privacy rights.

The immunity provision survived the votes despite opposition from many Democrats, including Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

"Congress should not be giving automatic retroactive immunity to companies that allegedly cooperated with president's illegal NSA [National Security Agency] wiretapping program," said Senator Feingold. "This provision of the bill is both unnecessary and unjustified, and it will undermine the rule of law."

But President Bush, congressional Republicans and even some moderate Democrats say the immunity provision is necessary. They warn that if the lawsuits are heard in court, national security could be compromised.

Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri is the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"If we permit lawsuits to go ahead against carriers alleged to have participated in the program, there will be more disclosures in discovery and pleadings of the means of collecting information, disclosing our most vital methods of collecting information," said Senator Bond.

President Bush has vowed to veto any legislation that does not contain the immunity provision. Just hours before final passage, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino signaled the president could back the Senate bill.

"The legislation is shaping up to be one that the president can support," said Dana Perino.

The Senate measure must be reconciled with a House-passed version, which does not include the immunity provision.

The Senate action on the wiretap bill prompted the return to the chamber of two presidential candidates, Democratic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. Obama voted against immunity for telephone companies, while McCain voted in favor of keeping the provision in the bill.

Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, the other Senate Democrat running for the White House, did not appear for the vote. Clinton, Obama, and McCain were in the Washington area for Tuesday's primaries in the nation's capital, Maryland and Virginia.