Senate to Pass Eavesdropping Bill

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate finally is expected to pass a bill overhauling rules on secret government eavesdropping, completing a lengthy and bitter debate that pitted privacy and civil liberties concerns against the desire to prevent terrorist attacks.

The vote, planned for Wednesday, would end almost a year of wrangling between the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, and Congress and the White House over the president's warrantless wiretapping program that was initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A major issue was the Bush administration's insistence that the bill shield from civil lawsuits telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on Americans without court permission after 9/11.

The White House had threatened to veto the bill unless it immunized companies like AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. from wiretapping lawsuits. About 40 such lawsuits have been filed. They are all pending before a single federal court.

The House approved the surveillance overhaul last month.

For about six years after 9/11, President Bush secretly directed telecommunications companies to tap phone and computer lines inside the United States without the permission or knowledge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

That court was created 30 years ago to prevent the government from abusing its surveillance powers for political purposes. The court is meant to approve all wiretaps placed inside the U.S. for intelligence-gathering purposes. That includes international e-mail records stored on servers inside the U.S.

The wiretapping was brought back under the FISA court's authority only after The New York Times revealed the existence of the program. A handful of members of Congress knew about the program from top secret briefings. Most members are still forbidden to know the details of the classified program, and some object that they are being asked to grant immunity to the telecoms without first knowing what they did.

Opponents to letting telecommunications companies off the hook have proposed amendments that would delay immunity until the full extent of the wiretapping program is revealed by a government investigation, or strip it from the bill entirely. They argue that only in court will the full extent of the program be understood, and only a judge should decide whether it broke the law.

The new surveillance bill also sets new rules for government eavesdropping. Some of them would tighten the reins on current government surveillance activities, and others loosen them compared with a law passed 30 years ago.

For example, it would require the government to get FISA court approval before it eavesdrops on an American overseas. Currently, the attorney general approves that electronic surveillance on his own.

But the bill also would allow the government to obtain broad, yearlong intercept orders from the FISA court that target foreign groups and people, raising the prospect that communications with innocent Americans would be swept up. The court would approve how the government chooses the targets, and how the intercepted American communications are to be protected.

The original FISA law required the government to get wiretapping warrants for each individual targeted from inside the United States. The number of needed warrants ballooned as technology changed and purely foreign communications increasingly passed through U.S. wires.

The bill would give the government a week to conduct a wiretap in an emergency before it must apply for a court order. The original law only allowed three days.

Yearlong wiretapping orders authorized by Congress last year will begin to expire in August. Without a new bill, the government would go back to old FISA rules, requiring multiple new orders to continue those intercepts.

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

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