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Telecom Industry Wins a Round on Eavesdropping

Date: 12/20/2007 1:08:17 AM

Telecommunications companies won a skirmish in the Senate on Monday as a bill to protect them from lawsuits for cooperating with the Bush administration’s eavesdropping programs easily overcame a procedural hurdle.

What happens next is not immediately clear. A different bill, which would not grant immunity to the companies, was also expected to be introduced by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee. And whatever bill emerges from the Senate may have to be reconciled with a House version that does not include immunity.

The measures are meant to renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, legislation that has deeply divided the White House and Capitol Hill and members of the House and Senate. Some action is necessary fairly soon, because the current FISA law expires in February.

In his unsuccessful bid to block the legislation, Senator Dodd urged his colleagues not to immunize the telecommunications industry for cooperating with the National Security Agency’s secret program of eavesdropping without warrants. The program was disclosed late in 2005 by The New York Times.

“For the last six years, our largest telecommunications companies have been spying on their own American customers,” Mr. Dodd said. “Secretly and without a warrant, they delivered to the federal government the private, domestic communications records of millions of Americans — records this administration has compiled into a data base of enormous scale and scope.”

“I have seen six presidents — six in the White House — and I have never seen a contempt for the rule of law equal to this,” Mr. Dodd asserted.

Another opponent of the immunization measure, Senator Russell D. Feingold, called it “deeply flawed.”

“This time around, the Senate should stand up to an administration that time and again has employed fearmongering and misleading statements to intimidate Congress,” said Mr. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin.

But supporters of the administration’s program of surveillance without warrants have described it as necessary to protect Americans from terrorists, and they insist the program strikes a sensible balance between national security and personal liberty.

But not all of the 76 senators who voted to advance the bill necessarily agree entirely with the administration. Some do, but others voted to advance the bill so they can criticize it or offer amendments.

For instance, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, voted to advance the bill because, he said, the issue is “too important to hold up any longer.” Mr. Kennedy said he strongly favored the version backed by Senator Leahy, who himself voted on Monday to advance the competing bill, rather than the version that just advanced, saying that version would grant “vast new authorities to spy on Americans.”Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he would offer an amendment that would substitute the federal government as defendant in lawsuits, in place of the companies.

“The telephone companies have, I believe, acted as good citizens,” Mr. Specter said.

President Bush has threatened to veto any measure that does not grant immunity to the companies. The House version of the legislation, enacted a month ago, was approved by 227 to 189, or dozens of “yes” votes short of the twothirds needed to overcome a presidential veto.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, said he agreed to have both Senate measures considered at the same time because “this process will give senators the opportunity to fully debate the various issues.”

In addition to Mr. Dodd and Mr. Feingold, the senators who voted against advancing the immunization measure were Barbara Boxer of California, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, Tom Harkin of Iowa, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Ron Wyden of Oregon, all Democrats.

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