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Phone Firms' Bid for Immunity in Wiretaps Gains Ground

By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 25, 2008

The Senate signaled in a key vote yesterday that it supports giving some of the nation's largest telephone companies immunity from dozens of privacy lawsuits related to a federal domestic eavesdropping program initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In a lopsided 60 to 36 vote -- with 12 Democrats joining Republicans in the majority -- the Senate rejected a version of the proposed legislation sponsored by Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. That bill omitted immunity for the telecommunications firms involved in warrantless eavesdropping.

The move kept alive a competing proposal, from Democrats and Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee, that would give the companies the legal protections they seek. It also underscored the deep divisions among Democrats on the surveillance issue. A measure passed by House Democrats would offer no immunity for the companies.

The vote marked a notable victory for the White House, which has pushed hard for telecom immunity.

In a last-minute parliamentary maneuver late yesterday, Senate Republican leaders sought to force a vote on Monday to close debate on the bill, which would effectively kill proposed Democratic amendments.

Expressing his anger, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said the maneuver has put the fate of the entire bill in jeopardy. A temporary surveillance law, passed in August, is due to expire next Friday. The Bush administration and GOP leaders have opposed requests from Reid and other Democrats for an extension.

Reid said it appears that President Bush and Republican lawmakers "want failure. They don't want a bill."

Bush said in a statement before yesterday's vote that lawmakers should act quickly to approve a new surveillance measure that includes legal immunity for telecommunications firms. "Congress' action or lack of action on this important issue will directly affect our ability to keep Americans safe," Bush said.

Without new legislation, the government's surveillance authorities would revert to the powers that were in place in the summer before the temporary statute was approved.

In another bid to sway the roiling debate over its surveillance practices, the White House agreed yesterday to give members of the House intelligence and judiciary committees access to a set of secret records related to the warrantless wiretapping program.

Similar committees in the Senate were granted the same access in the fall, according to legislative aides. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the House intelligence committee chairman, said he had "pushed for eight months" to review the documents.

The current, temporary surveillance law was approved under heavy White House pressure in August. It gives the government broad powers to eavesdrop without warrants on the communications of terrorism suspects. It effectively legalized many of the practices employed by the National Security Agency as part of a secret program approved by Bush in late 2001.

The White House and Republican lawmakers are pushing to make the law permanent while also adding legal protections for telecommunications companies, which face dozens of lawsuits.

Senate intelligence committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) and other Democrats on the panel have backed the immunity legislation. Rockefeller said yesterday that the companies "acted in good faith" and "provided assistance because they wanted to stop terrorist attacks."

But civil liberties advocates, liberal activist groups and most House Democrats oppose providing retroactive immunity for what they allege may have been violations of federal law. The House approved a strikingly different surveillance bill denying legal protections to the phone companies and strengthening court oversight of clandestine spying.

The issue has spilled over into the Democratic presidential race: Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) have said that they oppose legal immunity for the telecoms, but neither was present for yesterday's vote. In a series of e-mails to supporters yesterday, the liberal group MoveOn.org urged Clinton and Obama to help lead a filibuster to block the immunity legislation in the Senate.

Rockefeller told reporters this week that he is confident he has the 60 votes needed to overcome any filibuster attempt.

Debate on the issue is now stalled until Monday afternoon because of the GOP maneuver. If the Senate votes to resume debate, a host of key amendments could affect the final outcome.

They include an amendment, offered by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), that would make the federal government liable for privacy violations, instead of companies. Another from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would allow a secret intelligence court to determine whether companies should receive immunity. Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D.-Conn.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) also plan to offer a separate measure to strip the immunity, but that amendment faces long odds, given yesterday's 60 to 36 vote.

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