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Committee passes surveillance laws update in face of veto threat

  • Story Highlights
  • Senate Judiciary Committee passes update to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
  • Committee vote splits along party lines, and full Senate still must consider bill
  • Attorney General Mukasey is against Democrat's plan to revise surveillance law
  • Leahy is against immunity for telecommunications firms that aided government
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From Terry Frieden
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday passed on a strict party-line vote an update to the nation's electronic surveillance laws despite a veto threat from the attorney general.

Sen. Patrick Leahy opposes immunity for companies that helped the National Security Agency.

The bill would mean the nation's intelligence services would not need to request a court warrant to monitor foreign-to-foreign communications involving suspected terrorists.

All 10 Democrats on the committee voted for the measure, while all nine Republicans opposed it.

Republicans objected to the effort to push through a complicated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act modernization plan on which they had not been consulted.

Approval of the proposal by the Democrats was assured after late changes were made in several provisions to satisfy Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island.

Administration officials had been lobbying for a permanent change to the FISA law after an intelligence court ruled earlier this year that warrants were needed for those communications.

Congress in August passed a temporary change and now is considering various bills to make it permanent.

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  • Mukasey threatens veto of surveillance law

One of the key changes approved by the committee would make clear that the FISA law is the exclusive authority for approving warrants for electronic surveillance.

The full Senate still must approve the bill.

The committee Thursday also decided to let the full Senate decide the controversial question of whether to grant retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies that cooperated with the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program, The Associated Press reported.

Some of the companies are being sued by people who say their privacy rights were violated when phone records, e-mail logs and other information were turned over to the government without court approval.

The White House is pushing for approval of the immunity provision, but many Democrats on the panel oppose it.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Michael Mukasey told a key Democratic senator he would recommend that President Bush veto the Judiciary Committee bill if it arrives on the president's desk.

The veto threat adds to an already testy atmosphere in which the highly partisan Senate Judiciary Committee has struggled to reach a consensus on how to update the 30-year-old FISA law, which they agree has been overtaken by dramatic changes in technology.

In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, Mukasey was adamant in opposing Leahy's plan for changing the law.

Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell co-signed the letter.

"We strongly oppose the proposed substitute amendment. If the substitute is part of a bill that is presented to the president, we and the president's other senior advisers will recommend that he veto the bill," they said.

Leahy last week introduced his substitute to a FISA modernization bill already approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The intelligence committee bill -- which was shepherded through the committee by its chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, won wide bipartisan support and is backed by the administration. It includes retroactive immunity to protect the telecommunications companies that cooperated with the NSA.

Leahy, who opposed Mukasey's confirmation last week, is adamantly opposed to the immunity provision.

Mukasey and McConnell listed almost a dozen other provisions or omissions in the Leahy plan that they said "would not provide the intelligence community with the tools it needs effectively to collect foreign intelligence information vital for the security of the nation."

The White House, meanwhile, released a statement calling Leahy's plan "a step back for our nation's security."

Leahy and many of his Democratic allies back provisions they believe provide essential civil liberties protections against excessive government intrusion and potential abuse.

The House of Representatives, which has not included the immunity provision, is expected to consider its version of the electronic surveillance bill later Thursday. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Kevin Bohn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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