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Democrats to Offer New Surveillance Rules

Protesters display their opposition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Democrats plan to introduce a bill this week that would overhaul FISA and aims to reconcile civil liberties and concerns over privacy and national security. (By Ken Cedeno -- Bloomberg News)

Four possibilities are being discussed, said a Senate aide familiar with the discussions. The broadest would be blanket immunity, which would immunize anyone, including government officials, who had anything to do with any surveillance program. That is the approach the government favors and is strongly opposed by civil liberties advocates.

The second is targeted immunity, in which companies that can prove they were acting in good faith would be granted immunity from prosecution. The third is substitution, in which the government would replace the defendant in the lawsuit. Finally, there is indemnification. The cases would proceed through the court system, and if there were financial penalties, the government would assume them, the aide said.

Aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the record.

Adding a new perspective on the debate, a group of prominent computer scientists from organizations including Sun Microsystems, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania recently warned that the current emergency law opens doors to the interception of purely domestic communications without a warrant. The computer scientists are concerned that the government's actions could threaten the privacy and security of U.S. communications.

Administration officials have testified that any information gathered that involves an American who is not a target will be "minimized" -- their identities blacked out -- so that their privacy is protected.

Michael Sussmann, a partner at Perkins Coie in Washington who represents communications providers, said carriers that are alleged to have participated in the government's warrantless surveillance program want immunity to halt pending cases, while those who did not are either agnostic or do not want their competitors to get a free pass.

"It's a tough call," he said. "If they were breaking the law, it was not out of any greed -- there was no remuneration or benefit to their business. It was from a sense of patriotism and interest in protecting against terrorist attack."


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