Senate approves surveillance bill, leaves telecom immunity intact

by William Branigin and Paul Kane, Washington Post

The Senate voted today to preserve retroactive immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that cooperated with a government eavesdropping program, decisively rejecting an amendment that would have stripped the provision from a bill to modernize an electronic surveillance law.

Senators voted 67 to 31 to shelve the amendment offered by Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). A filibuster-proof 60 votes had been needed for the amendment to move forward.

The vote represented a victory for the Bush administration and a number of telecommunications companies -- including AT&T and Sprint Nextel -- that face dozens of lawsuits from customers seeking billions of dollars in damages.

Approval of the amendment would have exposed the companies to privacy lawsuits for helping the administration monitor the calls of suspected terrorists without warrants from a special court following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The amendment was one of a series the Senate is considering today to modify legislation that would extend the government's authority to carry out electronic surveillance against targets outside the United States.

President Bush has called on Congress to rapidly renew the surveillance authority granted to the federal government in the Protect America Act approved last year. But he has vowed to veto any new bill that does not shield the companies that helped the government carry out the warrantless wiretapping program that Bush ordered after the Sept. 11 attacks.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed against U.S. telecommunications companies by plaintiffs who alleged that the firms' actions violated wiretapping and privacy laws.

Immunity from such lawsuits must also be approved by the House, which does not provide such protection in its version of the bill.

The Senate bill is aimed at modernizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The Protect America Act last year gave the government expanded authority to carry out surveillance, but its provisions expired Feb. 1. Congress and Bush agreed to an extension that runs out Friday.

The American Civil Liberties Union denounced today's rejection of the Dodd-Feingold amendment.

"When companies break the law, they should be held accountable by our government -- not given a multimillion dollar favor," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "The millions of Americans who are telecom customers deserve to know that their phone conversations are private."

In a statement, she charged that telecommunications companies "illegally turned over private customer call information to the government." But instead of "having faith in the U.S. court system to fairly handle these cases," she said, the Senate opted to "give the telecom providers a get-out-of-jail-free card."

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