House passes new surveillance law

House passes new surveillance law

 

In this March 13, 2008 file photo, President Bush makes a statement on FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) legislation on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. The House prepared Friday to vote on a measure that effectively protects telecommunication companies from civil lawsuits but also sets out steps for investigating the wiretapping program to determine its scope and legality. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, file)

In this March 13, 2008 file photo, President Bush makes a statement on FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) legislation on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. The House prepared Friday to vote on a measure that effectively protects telecommunication companies from civil lawsuits but also sets out steps for investigating the wiretapping program to determine its scope and legality. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, file) (Charles Dharapak – Associated Press)

By PAMELA HESS
The Associated Press
Friday, June 20, 2008; 8:24 PM

 

WASHINGTON — The House on Friday easily approved a compromise bill setting new electronic surveillance rules that effectively shield telecommunications companies from lawsuits arising from the government’s terrorism-era warrantless eavesdropping on phone and computer lines in this country.

The bill, which was passed on a 293-129 vote, does more than just protect the telecoms. The update to the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is an attempt to balance privacy rights with the government’s responsibility to protect the country against attack, taking into account changes in telecommunications technologies.

"This bill, though imperfect, protects both," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and a former member of the House intelligence committee.

President Bush praised the bill Friday. "It will help our intelligence professionals learn enemies’ plans for new attacks," he said in a statement before television cameras a few hours before the vote.

The House’s passage of the FISA Amendment bill marks the beginning of the end to a monthslong standoff between Democrats and Republicans about the rules for government wiretapping inside the United States. The Senate was expected to pass the bill with a large margin, perhaps as soon as next week, before Congress takes a break during the week of the Fourth of July.

The government eavesdropped on American phone and computer lines for almost six years after the Sept. 11 attacks without permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the special panel established for that purpose under the 1978 law. Some 40 lawsuits have been filed against the telecommunications companies by groups and individuals who think the Bush administration illegally monitored their phone calls or e-mails.

The White House had threatened to veto any surveillance bill that did not also shield the companies.

The compromise bill directs a federal district court to review certifications from the attorney general saying the telecommunications companies received presidential orders telling them wiretaps were needed to detect or prevent a terrorist attack. If the paperwork were deemed in order, the judge would dismiss the lawsuit.

It would also require the inspectors general of the Justice Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies to investigate the wiretapping program, with a report due in a year.

Critics of the bill say dismissal is a foregone conclusion.

"These provisions turn the judiciary into the administration’s rubber stamp," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. She opposes the bill.

Opponents of immunity believe civil lawsuits are the only way the full extent of the wiretapping program will ever be revealed.

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