The bill would grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that turned over thousands of individuals telephone records, summaries of e-mail traffic, and other information to the government at its request after Sept. 11, 2001.
The Senate version of the bill passed with a bipartisan vote of 13 to 2. It places the governments foreign spying program under the supervision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. This secret court was set up in the Justice Department under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy.
In 26 years the FISA court has rejected five out of 19,000 government requests for wiretaps or search warrants.
The Senate bill would allow the government to wiretap the communications of foreign targets overseas without having to obtain warrants for each person being snooped on. The cops would be able to do so even in some cases when the communications were with individuals in the United States.
It also grants immunity to companies that can demonstrate to a court that they acted in response to a legal directive from the government in turning over records of phone calls and e-mails. Companies could submit their evidence in secret. These companies are believed to include AT&T and Verizon Communications, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The bill would allow the court to dismiss some 40 lawsuits against telecommunications companies for violation of privacy if the U.S. attorney general certifies either that the company did not aid the governments spying or that it responded to a request authorized by the president between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 17, 2007. The latter certification can also be presented in secret.
The agreement on the Senate bill came as a similar bill sponsored by Democrats in the House of Representatives collapsed. That bill did not include immunity for telecommunications companies. The House Democratic leadership said they withdrew the bill because they lacked the votes to get it out of committee.
The Senate deal was reached after the White House agreed to make documents authorizing the foreign spying program available to the Senate Intelligence Committee members. Some Democrats in the House and others in the Senate not on the intelligence committee have objected not to the spying but to the fact that they have not been privy to the documents.
Aides to the Senate Democratic leaders told the press they expect to pass a bill by the end of November.
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