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Senate OKs Wiretapping Measure With Telecom Immunity

July 9, 2008 at 5:30 PM EDT
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The Senate voted Wednesday to keep retroactive immunity for phone companies that help with monitoring in a federal warrantless surveillance program bill. The decision defeated Democrats against it. Ray Suarez reports.

RAY SUAREZ: With its vote this afternoon on a bill overhauling the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, the Senate ended nearly a year of passionate conflict.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), Mo.: By a vote of 69 ayes and 28 nays, the bill is passed.

RAY SUAREZ: Much of today’s debate centered, as it has for months, on whether telecommunications companies should be shielded from civil lawsuits. Several companies helped the government tap Americans’ phones and computer lines without warrants after 9/11.

Senators like Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy opposed granting telecoms legal protection.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vt.: Indeed, for all the talk about holding the government accountable, they’ve chosen to do nothing to make any case against the government more viable, red herring if ever there was one.

We’re telling Americans, “We’re closing the door.” We’re telling Americans, law-abiding, honest, good, hard-working Americans that we’re closing the courthouse door in your face, because we have to protect the president and those around him who may have done something illegal.

RAY SUAREZ: Utah Republican Orrin Hatch disagreed.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), Utah: The fact is, the president created an early warning system to prevent future attacks, essentially, a terrorist smoke detector. But rather than appreciate the protection it offered, critics rushed to pull out the batteries so that it wouldn’t and couldn’t work.

Phone companies protected

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), Utah: My feelings of admiration and respect for the companies who did their part to defend America are well known. As I've said in the past, any company who assisted us following the attacks on 9/11 deserves a round of applause and a helping hand, not a slap in the face and a kick to the gut.

RAY SUAREZ: Along with immunity for phone companies, the measure also calls for a federal district court review of the presidential orders telling the telecommunications companies the wiretaps were needed to prevent an attack; an investigation by a group of inspectors general into the scope and legality of the program, to be completed in a year; and protection for Americans overseas, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would have to approve tapping Americans outside the U.S.

All communication could be targeted

RAY SUAREZ: Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin argued the new provisions could still result in innocent Americans being targeted.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), Wisc.: The FISA Amendments Act would authorize the government to collect all, all communications between the United States and the rest of the world.

Now, that could mean millions upon millions of communications between innocent Americans and their friends, families, or business associates overseas could now be legally collected. Parents calling their kids studying abroad, e-mails to friends serving in Iraq, all of these communications could be collected with absolutely no suspicion of any wrongdoing at all under this legislation.

RAY SUAREZ: But Missouri Republican Kit Bond, the ranking member of the intelligence committee, sought to reassure his colleagues.

SEN. KIT BOND (R), Mo.: It's been said that the new surveillance powers allow government to collect all communications between U.S. and the rest of the world, millions and millions of communications between innocent Americans, parents calling children abroad, people serving in Iraq, no prohibition on reverse targeting.

Well, as the senator from Utah said earlier today, unless you have al-Qaida on your speed dial, you're not going to be collected against. A plain reading of the bill shows us that this statement is simply inaccurate.

Collection system divides Dems, GOP

RAY SUAREZ: Not all Republicans were as pleased with the measure. Though he eventually backed the bill, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter criticized the deal's negotiators for not including the full Senate in the process.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pa.: It's plain that most members of the United States Senate have not been briefed on this program. There's an old expression of buying a pig in a poke. It means buying something that you don't know what it is you're buying. Well, that's what the Senate is being asked to do here today: to grant retroactive immunity to a program where the members don't know what the program is.

RAY SUAREZ: But the bill did receive the support of 21 Democrats, including presidential candidate Barack Obama and the chair of the Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (D), W.Va.: This is a bill that provides a framework and stability within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for a collection system that will work well for national security. That's very important to this nation; that's very important to this body and to every single American.

RAY SUAREZ: Having already passed the House, the bill now goes to President Bush for his signature.