WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. phone companies that took part in President Bush's warrantless domestic spying program would receive retroactive immunity from lawsuits under a bill passed overwhelmingly Tuesday by the Democratic-led Senate.
But it was unclear if the Democratic-led House would also approve the measure to shield firms from potentially billions of dollars in civil damages.
About 40 civil lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc , Verizon Communications Inc and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating Americans' privacy rights in helping the government's warrantless domestic spying program started shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Passed by the Senate on a largely party-line vote of 68-29, the bill backed mostly by Republicans would replace a temporary spy law set to expire this week that expanded the power of U.S. authorities to track enemy targets without a court order.
In addition, the Senate bill would bolster the protection of privacy rights of law-abiding Americans swept up in the hunt for suspected terrorists.
Bush and Congress agreed last month to a 15-day extension of the expiring surveillance law -- to this coming Saturday -- to provide more time to resolve differences.
House Democrats, who have opposed immunity, plan to bring up for a vote as early as Wednesday another proposed extension, this one for 21 days, a top aide said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said: "We do not need yet another extension, yet another delay. We need to focus on getting our work done."
Bush urged the House to set aside "narrow partisan concerns" and pass the Senate measure so he can sign it into law.
"This good bill ... provides a long-term foundation for our intelligence community to monitor the communications of foreign terrorists in ways that are timely and effective and that also protect the liberties of Americans," the president said in a statement.
NATIONAL SECURITY CITED
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller of West Virginia broke ranks with many fellow Democrats in pushing to immunize phone companies. Yet he criticized Bush for starting the spy program without congressional or court approval.
"Anger over the president's program should not prevent us from addressing the real problems that the president has created," Rockefeller said.
He warned that without immunity some private firms may decline to help protect the nation.
Opponents, including civil liberties groups, complained that the measure's protections of privacy rights were inadequate and its immunity unwarranted.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, voted no, saying: "I believe that the White House and any companies who broke the law must be held accountable."
The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requires that the government receive the approval of a secret FISA court to conduct surveillance in the United States of suspected foreign enemy targets.
But after Sept. 11, Bush authorized warrantless surveillance of communications between people in the United States and others overseas if one had suspected terrorist ties. (Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Xavier Briand)
Source: Reuters North American News Service
*taken from WWW.AXISOFJUSTICE.ORG