Senate Debates Rewrite of '78 Law That Created Secret Intelligence Court

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Senate, clearing a key parliamentary hurdle, yesterday voted to begin debating a broad revision of U.S. intelligence laws that includes a controversial plan to grant immunity to telecommunications companies that assisted in the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program.

On a vote of 80 to 15, the Senate officially began debate on a sweeping rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, with an eye toward final passage of the bill as early as today. The large margin demonstrated that the bill's opponents -- the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy rights organizations -- do not have enough support to derail the measure through a filibuster, which Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) had threatened.

"This may be the most important bill we pass this year," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), an architect of the bill crafted over four months of negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House.

The bill would require that the secret FISA court approve procedures for intercepting foreign nationals' e-mails and telephone calls. Spying on U.S. citizens, including those overseas, would require individual warrants from the same court.

It also would establish the FISA law, and the secret court it created, as the final legal authority on government spying. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the party's presumptive presidential nominee, have cited the exclusivity provision as the main reason they supported the bill. They said it is a rejection of President Bush's stance that his wartime powers gave him authority to approve the defunct warrantless wiretapping program.

The telecom immunity provision continues to be the bill's source of conflict.

"This bill will effectively and unjustifiably grant immunity to companies that allegedly participated in an illegal wiretapping program," Feingold said.

Under the bill, the nation's largest telecom companies could have the more than 40 lawsuits they face dismissed by a U.S. district judge if they prove they received written assurance from the Bush administration that the spying was legal.

Supporters and opponents of the legislation consider the court review a formality. Rockefeller's committee has released a report showing that the companies received such letters earlier this decade.

In yesterday's preliminary vote, 31 Democrats and one independent voted to debate the bill.

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