US Senate approves terror surveillance overhaul

July 10th, 2008 - 5:25 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Barack Obama
Washington, July 10 (DPA) The US Senate Wednesday passed a long-awaited bill that places fresh restrictions on a government eavesdropping programme which has been significantly expanded after the Sep 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The legislation, thrashed out between Republicans, Democrats and the White House after a year of wrangling, allows the intelligence community to acquire broad warrants to listen in on calls between Americans and suspected terrorists outside of the country.

President George W Bush called the compromise a “vital piece of legislation … critical to America’s safety” and lauded both parties for finding common ground in an election year. The president had long argued that the surveillance programme is crucial to preventing future terrorist attacks against the United States.

A bitter debate has simmered for years over the proper balance between national security and civil liberties, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately announced that it would challenge the new measure in US courts.

The Senate adopted the compromise bill 69-28 after the House of Representatives approved similar legislation last month. Bush said he would soon sign the bill into law.

The revised Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act broadens congressional oversight of the programme and effectively reestablishes the primacy of a special court designed to approve all government requests to listen in on telephone calls or emails collected in the United States.

The non-public FISA court, set up in 1978 to allow the government to produce classified information, had been largely bypassed by the Bush administration since the Sep 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

But opponents said the compromise bill still allows warrantless surveillance of Americans if the information is collected overseas instead of in the US, and did not contain enough safeguards and oversight to prevent abuse of the system.

It also controversially grants immunity from lawsuits to telecommunications companies that provided information without warrants to the Bush administration in the years after Sep 11.

Bush’s warrantless surveillance programme was first revealed by media organizations in 2005, and about 40 lawsuits against telecoms firms are now pending in US courts. Many Democrats in the Senate strongly opposed blocking those cases from proceeding.

“Now is not the time to close the courthouse doors on this issue,” Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, a leading opponent of the bill, said in debate. “My trust remains in the courts.”

Republicans argued that telecoms firms should not be subjected to civil suits for helping to protect national security. The bill would still allow the surveillance programme itself - and government officials who crafted it - to be brought before the courts.

The ACLU, in announcing its court challenge, called the bill a “blatant assault on civil liberties and the right to privacy.”

The issue has become a hot topic on the election campaign trail. Democratic candidate Barack Obama faced a backlash from supporters last month for saying he approved of the compromise bill - an about- face from an earlier promise that he would oppose any legislation that provided immunity to telecommunications companies.

Republican rival John McCain has strongly supported the surveillance programme and immunity for telecoms.

Senators Obama and McCain both voted in favour of the Senate bill Wednesday.

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