House Easily Approves New Wiretapping Law
Speaking at the White House early Friday morning, Mr. Bush called on both the House and Senate to pass the deal that key lawmakers agreed to on Thursday, saying “it will help our intelligence professionals learn enemies’ plans for new attacks,” according to the Associated Press. The House passed the bill Friday by a vote of 293 to 129. The Senate will consider it next week.
The compromise measure will give U.S. intelligence agencies sweeping new powers to monitor international e-mails and phone calls from fiber optic networks in the United States as well as largely shield telecommunications companies from lawsuits.
The president said the legislation updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 will “allow our intelligence professionals to quickly and effectively monitor the plans of terrorists abroad while protecting our liberties at home.”
He also noted that the bill would protect telecommunications companies from lawsuits for cooperating for “past or future cooperation” with law enforcement authorities and will assist the intelligence community in determining the plans of terrorists by following “who they are talking to, what they are saying, what they are planning.”
The White House had threatened to veto any bill that did not shield the companies from lawsuits tied to government-ordered line tapping, leading to a prolonged partisan stand-off on the legislation.
Under the terms of the compromise bill, a federal district court will review orders from the attorney general saying the telecommunications companies received presidential orders telling them wiretaps were needed to detect or prevent a terrorist attack, the AP reported. If the documentation is in order, the judge would dismiss the lawsuit.
The legislation also requires the inspectors general of the Justice Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies to investigate the wiretapping program, with a report required in a year.
Warrantless wiretapping, which went on for almost six years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was revealed publicly in late 2005 by The New York Times and then discontinued in January 2007.
Currently, major telecommunications corporations like AT&T and Verizon face some 40 lawsuits from customers who believe the companies illegally monitored their phone calls or e-mails.
“It is the result of compromise, and like any compromise it is not perfect, but I believe it strikes a sound balance,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the lead Democratic negotiator in talks over the bill, said, according to the Washington Post.
Some lawmakers, however, were less pleased with the compromise plan. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who had pushed for more civil liberties protections in the bill, called the deal “a capitulation.”
During his Friday morning remarks, President Bush also praised the House passage of a new $162 billion bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until 2009 and a bill to expand education benefits for returning veterans.
Mr. Bush said he was pleased that Congress was moving forward on “a responsible war funding bill” for Iraq that supports the troops in the field without requiring “artificial timetables” for their withdrawal.
A compromise deal on the war funding bill was hammered out after Democrats agreed to drop a withdrawal timetable from the bill.