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Telecoms that helped warrantless spying could get off the hook

  • Story Highlights
  • Panel OKs bill giving firms immunity in warrantless eavesdropping program
  • Bill would also reinstate court oversight to Bush wiretapping program
  • Goes from Senate Intelligence Committee to Judiciary Committee
  • Democrat Rockefeller: Bill makes "unchecked wiretapping" a "thing of the past"

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A bill that would grant immunity to telecommunications companies helping out in a no-warrant eavesdropping program authorized by President Bush and reinstate some court oversight to surveillance was OK'd by a Senate panel Thursday.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, left, and Arlen Specter say they need more information before giving retroactive immunity.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's 13-2 vote on Thursday could heighten tensions about the disputed program between the White House and the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider the measure next.

The bill also seeks to require federal court review and approval for Bush administration requests to eavesdrop on suspects outside the United States who might be communicating with people inside the United States.

The top leaders on the Judiciary Committee are balking at the idea of offering immunity to the phone companies until they review Bush administration documents made available this week about the program.

"I'm not going to buy a pig in a poke and commit retroactive immunity when I don't know what went on," said the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, on Tuesday. The Pennsylvania senator's stance is echoed by Democratic Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Some of the telecommunications companies who participated in the no-warrant surveillance program are being sued by people who claim their privacy rights were violated when phone records, e-mail logs and other information were turned over to the government without court approval.

Verizon, AT&T and Qwest are all facing lawsuits about their possible participation in various government efforts and therefore have said they cannot comment.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller supports the immunity provision of the bill, opposing fellow Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. Other key Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada and California's Dianne Feinstein who voted in favor of the bill, have expressed concern about the issue.

After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to intercept communications of terror suspects overseas with people inside the United States without obtaining warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

The bill states that private companies that complied with government requests under the warrantless eavesdropping program should not be held liable if the requests were not within the law. "The onus should be on the government to ensure that the requests it makes of private companies are fully supported by the law," the bill states.

The bill, Rockefeller said, would strengthen national security while protecting the privacy and civil liberties of Americans -- assuring "that the unchecked wiretapping policy of the [Bush] administration is a thing of the past."

Specifically, the measure would reinstate the role of the FISA court, which was set up under a 1978 law to oversee foreign intelligence collection, into the approval process.

Under the bill, the court would review a "certification" submitted by the U.S. attorney general that authorizes the surveillance, according to an Intelligence Committee fact sheet.

The court would also approve procedures that authorities use to determine that the person to be watched is outside the United States. The court also would "approve or disapprove the targeting of Americans overseas."

The measure would enable the attorney general and the national intelligence director to authorize surveillance of people outside the United States for one year.

Electronic surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency have been under fire since December 2005, when The New York Times first disclosed that the government was listening in on international phone calls involving people suspected of having ties to terrorists.

Some legal scholars said the program is an illegal and unwarranted intrusion on Americans' privacy, but the Bush administration has defended it as necessary in the battle against al Qaeda.

The FISA court, which meets in secret, has been in place since the 1970s to decide whether to approve warrants for national security surveillance. The government argues that it has the right to bypass that FISA court in the case of an imminent security threat.

The panel's vote came a day after House Republicans stymied a vote on a Democratic version of the FISA legislation now pending in that chamber, which did not include immunity. The White House opposes the House bill, saying it contains provisions that would hamper national security efforts. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Pam Benson contributed to this report.

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