Senate Gives Telecoms Immunity For Illegal Spying

Senate Passes Bill to Expand U.S. Spying Powers

The Senate rejected a series of amendments that would have restricted the government’s surveillance powers and eliminated immunity for the phone carriers, and it voted in convincing fashion – 69 to 29 – to end debate and bring the issue to a final vote. That vote on the overall billwas an almost identical 68 to 29.

The House has already rejected the idea of immunity for the phone companies, and Democratic leaders reacted angrily to the Senate vote. But Congressional officials said it appeared that the House would ultimately be forced to accept some sort of legal protection for the phone carriers in negotiations between the two chambers this week.

The Senate debate amounted to a proxy vote not only on the president’s warrantless wiretapping program, but also on a range of other issues that tested the president’s wartime authority, from secret detentions to wiretapping issues. The discussion in effect presaged the debate over national security that will play out this year in the presidential and congressional elections.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who spoke on the Senate floor for more than 20 hours in an unsuccessful effort to stall the wiretapping bill, said the vote would be remembered by future generations as a test of whether the country heeds “the rule of law or the rule of men.”

But with Democrats defecting to the White House plan, he acknowledged that the national security issue had won the day in the Senate, even among many of his Democratic colleagues. “Unfortunately, those who are advocating this notion that you have to give up liberties to be more secure are apparently prevailing,” Mr. Dodd said. “They’re convincing people that we’re at risk either politically, or at risk as a nation.”

With resistance led by Mr. Dodd and Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, critics of the administration’s plan argued that it effectively rewarded phone companies by providing them with legal insulation for actions that violated longstanding law and their own fiduciary responsibilities to their customers. Immunity would protect the phone companies from some 40 lawsuits now pending that charge the firms broke the law by taking part in the program.

But supporters of the plan said the phone carriers acted out of patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks in complying with what they believed in good faith was a legally binding order from the president. Republicans were able to garner the support of 19 Democrats and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. Democratic leaders charged that the tactics the Republicans used smacked of fear-mongering.

“This, I believe, is the right way to go for the security of the nation,” said Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who leads the intelligence committee and who was a pivotal supporter of the White House-backed plan approved Tuesday.

Beyond the immunity provision, the Senate measure would also widen the executive branch’s surveillance powers by allowing the National Security Agency and intelligence agencies to use broad orders – without getting court orders in advance – to eavesdrop on groups of overseas targets, rather than using individualized warrants.