Senate bill grants immunity to telecom companies, House bill stalled

via OMBWatch

The Senate Intelligence Committee recently passed a bill that would grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies involved in the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless wiretapping program. The same week, the House pulled a bill that would increase judicial oversight and accountability over the administration's surveillance efforts.

On Oct. 18, the Senate Intelligence Committee passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2007 by a vote of 13-2. The strong vote reflects an agreement reached between Democratic members of the Intelligence Committee and the administration. The bill would provide immunity for any telecommunications company if the attorney general certifies that the company was not involved in a particular lawsuit or that, in response to a request authorized by the president, the company assisted the government in counterterrorism operations between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 17, 2007.

There are currently approximately 40 lawsuits involving telecommunications companies allegedly assisting the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. All of these suits would potentially be thrown out if the Senate bill becomes law.

"While neither side got everything we wanted, at the end of the day, we believe we've accomplished what we set out to do — allow for necessary intelligence collection while maintaining critical privacy protections for Americans," stated Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

An amendment introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) passed in committee 9-6. It would require the government to receive a warrant in order to target an American citizen overseas. The White House stated they would not accept a bill which included such a requirement, and Republican members of the committee opposed it.

"Unfortunately, the Committee adopted a problematic amendment today, which if not modified, will make it more difficult to vote our bill out of the Senate," stated Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I am hopeful, however, that we will be able to reach a compromise on this issue when we get to the floor."

Wyden and Feingold were the only members on the committee who voted against the bill. "The bill, which I voted against, does nothing to protect the rights of innocent Americans communicating with people overseas and it includes unjustified retroactive immunity for those alleged to have cooperated with the Administration's illegal warrantless wiretapping program," stated Feingold. "As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as Intelligence Committee, I will continue to fight for the rights of Americans and to protect the Constitution and the rule of law."

Feingold was referring to the fact that the FISA Amendments Act of 2007 next heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), chairman and ranking member of the committee, respectively, have expressed opposition to immunity for the telecommunications industry, without receiving records on the NSA spying program. A number of public interest groups have called on the committee to hold a public hearing on the bill

Additionally, Sen. Christopher Dodd ☼ (D-CT) said that he would issue a hold on the bill. "I will do everything in my power to stop Congress from shielding this President's agenda of secrecy, deception, and blatant unlawfulness."

Meanwhile, in the House last week, the Responsible Electronic Surveillance that is Overseen, Reviewed, and Effective Act of 2007 (RESTORE Act) (H.R. 3773), previously described in the ,i>Watcher, was abruptly pulled by the leadership just before an expected floor vote due to a parliamentary maneuver by the Republicans.

The Republicans attempted to introduce an amendment that would have stated that the requirement to receive a court order does not apply if the target of surveillance is Osama bin Laden or related terrorist organizations. The Democratic leadership dismissed the maneuver as a tactic to impede the bill's progress, claiming that the bill already provides such authority. But House leadership started losing support, and the bill was pulled.

The RESTORE Act is expected to be considered the week of Oct. 22. Republicans are expected to attempt a similar maneuver and possibly try to include retroactive telecommunications immunity, which is not currently apart of the bill.

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