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Surveillance Bill Offers Protection To Telecom Firms

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By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 20, 2008

House and Senate leaders agreed yesterday on surveillance legislation that could shield telecommunications companies from privacy lawsuits, handing President Bush one of the last major legislative victories he is likely to achieve.

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The agreement extends the government's ability to eavesdrop on espionage and terrorism suspects while effectively providing a legal escape hatch for AT&T, Verizon Communications and other telecom firms. They face more than 40 lawsuits that allege they violated customers' privacy rights by helping the government conduct a warrantless spying program after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The breakthrough on the legislation came hours after the White House agreed to Democratic demands for domestic spending additions to an emergency war funding bill. Taken together, the bills -- two of the last major pieces of legislation to be approved by Congress this year -- suggest that Bush still wields considerable clout on national security issues but now must acquiesce to Democratic demands on favored domestic priorities to secure victory.

The war spending bill, for example, includes $162 billion for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and an additional $95 billion worth of domestic spending on programs such as unemployment insurance and higher-education benefits for veterans. Bush, who had threatened for months to veto the legislation, said he will sign it.

Leading Democrats acknowledged that the surveillance legislation is not their preferred approach, but they said their refusal in February to pass a version supported by the Bush administration paved the way for victories on other legislation, such as the war funding bill.

"When they saw that we were unified in sending that bill rather than falling for their scare tactics, I think it sent them a message," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "So our leverage was increased because of our Democratic unity in both cases."

Under the surveillance agreement, which is expected to be approved today by the House and next week by the Senate, telecoms could have privacy lawsuits thrown out if they show a federal judge that they received written assurance from the Bush administration that the spying was legal.

The proposal marks a compromise by Republicans and the Bush administration, which had opposed giving federal judges any significant role in granting legal immunity to the phone companies.

The legislation also would require court approval of procedures for intercepting telephone calls and e-mails that pass through U.S.-based servers -- another step that the White House and GOP lawmakers previously resisted.

"It is the result of compromise, and like any compromise it is not perfect, but I believe it strikes a sound balance," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the lead Democratic negotiator in talks between lawmakers and the White House.

But overall, the deal appears to give Bush and his aides, including Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, much of what they sought in a new surveillance law.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto called the measure "a bipartisan bill" that "will give the intelligence professionals the long-term tools they need to protect the nation, and liability protection for those who may have assisted the government after the 9/11 attacks."


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