The U.S. Senate has voted to extend a controversial U.S. National Security Agency surveillance program that targeted terrorism suspects as well as U.S. residents, and will likely provide legal immunity to telecommunication carriers that participated in the program.
The Senate on Wednesday voted 69-28 to approve the bill, which would provide some additional court oversight to the NSA program, which dates back to 2001. The legislation, supported by U.S. President George Bush, could extend the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program, which targets electronic communication such as phone calls and e-mail, until the end of 2012.
The bill, called the called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act, now goes to Bush for his signature. The bill is “critical to our nation’s security,” said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Several senators, most of them Democrats, attempted to take out or weaken the telecom immunity provisions in the bill, but the Senate voted to defeat three such amendments earlier Wednesday.
The amendments would have upset a delicate compromise on the bill between members of Congress and the Bush administration, said Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican. While many Democrats expressed anger about the telecom immunity provisions, their anger should be “redirected toward tearing down our foreign enemy,” he said.
The Senate first voted 66-32 to defeat an amendment that would have removed the telecom immunity provisions from a bill that extends the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program, which began shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. The surveillance program allegedly allowed the NSA to spy on U.S. residents who communicated with overseas terrorism suspects, without first obtaining a warrant.
A second amendment would have required a U.S. district court to determine if the NSA program was constitutional, and if the program wasn’t, would have allowed the more than 40 lawsuits pending against participating telecom carriers to move forward. That amendment, offered by Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, was defeated 61-37.
A third amendment, offered by Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, would have delayed a decision on whether to dismiss the lawsuits for more than a year, while several U.S. agency inspectors general investigated the program. Congress would decide whether to grant telecom immunity after the inspectors general reports. That amendment was defeated 56-42.
Most senators still don’t know the details of the surveillance program, Bingaman said. “We don’t know what is it we’re granting immunity for,” he said. “I think the American people expect Congress to make informed decisions.”
Telecom immunity provisions are needed to protect companies that helped the U.S. government in a time of need, Bond said. “It is not right to punish patriotic Americans who stepped forward to help our government by subjecting them to the harassment of lawsuits,” Bond said.
Bush’s administration had threatened to veto the bill if telecom immunity provisions were taken out of it, even though Bush has said the surveillance program is crucial to U.S. security. A veto would have, in effect, killed the surveillance program until the administration and Congress could iron out a new compromise.
Civil liberties organizations and many Democrats have objected to the NSA program because it was done in secret and allowed surveillance of U.S. residents without court-approved warrants. The program was illegal under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, critics have said.
The FISA Amendments Act is part of a compromise between some congressional Democrats and the administration. It would allow the NSA program to go forward with some court oversight, and it would send the dozens of outstanding lawsuits against telecom carriers for their alleged participation to a district court, which would review whether they should be dismissed.
The lawsuits would be thrown out if telecom companies show that they were told by government officials that surveillance orders were legal.
Opponents of the bill argued Wednesday that telecom immunity allows the Bush administration and telecom carriers to get away with illegal activity. The telecom immunity provisions would be a congressional power grab from the U.S. court system, which is supposed to decide constitutional issues, said Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and sponsor of the amendment to strip out the immunity provisions.
“It’s not our business as a jury or a judge to determine the legality of what occurred here,” Dodd said. “That’s what the issue is here, the rule of law or the rule of men.”
The underlying bill contains loopholes that would allow the government to spy on U.S. residents without court authority, added Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat. The bill would allow surveillance in emergency situations without court orders for a brief time.
“We’re talking about spying on U.S. citizens,” Cantwell said. The legislation is “unacceptable and contrary to American values.”
Bond, the Missouri Republican, disagreed, saying the bill requires surveillance of U.S. residents to be approved by the FISA court. “Unless you have Al Qaeda on speed dial, you’re not going to be [monitored],” he said.
Senator Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee for president, voted for all three amendments. Some supporters had expressed concerns that he would backtrack on his opposition to telecom immunity.