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Deal clears way for wiretap-law overhaul

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  • NEW: One top Democrat condemns wiretap deal as a "capitulation"
  • Compromise bill would rewrite 1970s domestic surveillance law
  • Plan would free telecommunications companies from lawsuits
  • ACLU, others say plan guts oversight of domestic spying
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House and Senate leaders Thursday announced a new effort to overhaul U.S. wiretapping laws that appears likely to let telecommunications companies escape lawsuits over the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program.

A new bipartisan deal in Congress could allow telecom companies to escape wiretap lawsuits.

A new bipartisan deal in Congress could allow telecom companies to escape wiretap lawsuits.

The measure could be brought to the floor of the House of Representatives as early as Friday, breaking a four-month impasse between the Bush administration and Congress over whether to protect companies that took part in a program critics say was illegal.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the bill would prevent administration officials from conducting any new warrantless surveillance. And House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, said the new plan is "not perfect," but "strikes a sound balance" between intelligence-gathering and civil liberties.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, remains opposed to retroactive immunity, his office said. Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, one of the harshest critics of the warrantless wiretapping program, called the proposal "a capitulation." And Rep. Roy Blunt, the House Republican whip, appeared to back up Feingold's assessment, saying the process of granting immunity will be "a formality."

The plan drew immediate criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which said it would effectively gut court oversight of domestic intelligence-gathering. Caroline Fredrickson, the head of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, said the bill "allows for mass and untargeted surveillance of Americans' communications."

"The court review is mere window-dressing," she said in a statement condemning the deal. "All the court would look at is the procedures for the year-long dragnet and not at the who, what and why of the spying."

The Bush administration and its Republican allies in Congress have pushed strongly for protecting companies that cooperated with the post-9/11 surveillance program from lawsuits -- the issue that scuttled previous versions of a surveillance bill. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the intelligence community depends on "the backing of patriotic, private companies."

"Those businesses that cooperate are putting their shareholders and employees at stake, and they deserve our support -- not multibillion-dollar lawsuits," Hoekstra said. "This bill recognizes that and provides an avenue for the liability question to be answered."

U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and J.M. McConnell, director of national intelligence, sent a letter to House leaders Thursday saying they support the bill. It said the amendments "would provide the intelligence community with the tools it needs to collect the foreign intelligence necessary to secure our nation while protecting the civil liberties of Americans."

They also cited the protections for phone companies who assisted the government.

"Because the bill accomplishes these two goals ... we strongly support passage of this bill and will urge that the president sign it," the letter said.

A temporary law granting immunity to telephone and Internet providers who took part in the program expired in February when leading Democrats opposed making those protections retroactive.

President Bush acknowledged in 2005 that he ordered the secretive National Security Agency to intercept communications between U.S. residents and people overseas suspected of having ties to terrorism. The administration insists the program was authorized when Congress approved military action against al Qaeda after the terrorist network's 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

But Democrats and some leading Republicans in Congress say it violated a 1978 law that required intelligence agencies to get court approval before spying on Americans. The revelations led to several lawsuits against the phone companies that cooperated with the program by people who suspect they were targets of the wiretaps.

The Bush administration has refused to share records of the program with federal courts, invoking a "state secrets" privilege. Under the new proposal, the courts would have access to all documents and would be able to hear claims from the plaintiffs in those cases.

But judges would be asked to determine whether the companies received written certification that the surveillance was authorized by the president and that it was lawful -- a proposal the ACLU says guarantees the cases will be dismissed.

"The telecom companies simply have to produce a piece of paper we already know exists, resulting in immediate dismissal," Fredrickson said in a written statement. She said the bill "does nothing to keep Americans safe and is a constitutional farce."

In a written statement, Feingold blasted the deal and urged Democrats to oppose "the flawed and dangerous policies of this administration."

"Allowing courts to review the question of immunity is meaningless when the same legislation essentially requires the court to grant immunity," said Feingold, who sits on the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees. "And under this bill, the government can still sweep up and keep the international communications of innocent Americans in the U.S. with no connection to suspected terrorists, with very few safeguards to protect against abuse of this power."

Reid told reporters the compromise made "some improvements." But he added, "How are my members going to feel about? We'll wait and see."

Reid himself won't commit to the measure until a full review, his office said.

For future wiretaps, the new measure would require a special court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to approve any effort to spy on Americans. If they believe intelligence would be lost, U.S. authorities could act for up to seven days before seeking a warrant -- more than twice the three-day emergency period in current law.

The new plan calls for a review of surveillance programs by the inspectors general of U.S. intelligence agencies within a year. And the law would expire in 2012, giving the next administration the opportunity to review the program.

"At its core, this historic, bipartisan agreement to modernize FISA is about providing an essential tool in the fight against terrorism," Rockefeller said his statement. "It meets our dual obligations to make our nation safe and restore the privacy protections and civil liberties Americans require."

CNN's Pam Benson, Ted Barrett and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.

All About Espionage and IntelligenceU.S. CongressAmerican Civil Liberties Union

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