House to Debate New Surveillance Law

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For months the debate over whether telecommunications companies should face lawsuits for cooperating with the government's warrantless wiretapping program has been the sticking point for updating a surveillance law.

With a compromise at hand, the House prepared Friday to vote on a measure that effectively protects telecoms from civil lawsuits but also sets out steps for investigating the wiretapping program to determine its scope and legality.

The update to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was expected to pass the House, potentially ending the standoff between Democrats and Republicans about the rules for government wiretapping inside the United States. The Senate was expected to pass the bill with a large margin, perhaps as soon as next week.

Warrantless wiretapping, which went on for almost six years after the Sept. 11 attacks, was revealed publicly in late 2005 by The New York Times and then discontinued in January 2007. Some 40 lawsuits have been filed against the companies by groups and individuals who think the Bush administration illegally monitored their phone calls or e-mails.

The White House had threatened to veto any bill that did not shield the companies, which tapped lines at the behest of the president and attorney general but without permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the special panel established for that purpose under the 1978 law.

The compromise bill would have a federal district court review certifications from the attorney general saying the telecommunications companies received presidential orders telling them wiretaps were needed to detect or prevent a terrorist attack. If the paperwork were deemed in order, the judge would dismiss the lawsuit.

It would also require the inspectors general of the Justice Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies to investigate the wiretapping program, with a report due in a year.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendment bill also would:

-Require FISA court permission to wiretap Americans who are overseas.

-Prohibit targeting a foreigner to secretly eavesdrop on an American's calls or e-mails without court approval.

-Allow the FISA court 30 days to review existing but expiring surveillance orders before renewing them.

-Allow eavesdropping in emergencies without court approval, provided the government files required papers within a week.

-Prohibit the government from invoking war powers or other authorities to supersede surveillance rules in the future.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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