Senate panel OKs wiretap bill, telecom immunity

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill to tighten rules on government eavesdropping on terrorism suspects, but a Democratic presidential candidate said on Thursday he would try to block it.

The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 13-2 for the measure, which Chairman John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said strengthened national security and protected civil liberties.

“It ensures that the unchecked wiretapping policies of the administration are a thing of the past,” Rockefeller told reporters.

The Senate committee’s action came a day after a Democratic effort collapsed in the House of Representatives to pass an eavesdropping bill opposed by the White House.

Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, called the Senate bill “a delicate arrangement of compromises.”

The bill would allow wiretapping without a court order of suspected foreign terrorists, including when they call Americans, committee leaders said.

It would grant lawsuit immunity, demanded by the White House, for telephone companies that participated in a secret warrantless eavesdropping program launched by U.S. President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.

The House bill would have required court approval when eavesdropping on terrorism suspects who might call Americans, and omitted the phone company immunity.

To safeguard civil liberties, the Senate bill would require a secret court to approve methods for targeting suspects and eavesdropping, more congressional oversight, and the removal of identifying information from intercepted calls involving innocent Americans.

An amendment added during committee debate would require court approval to eavesdrop on the communications of an American overseas. The bill would expire after six years.

Rockefeller said he was optimistic the White House would support the bill, but Bond indicated an amendment -- evidently the one on overseas Americans -- may need more work.


Sen. Chris Dodd said he intended to put a procedural “hold” on the bill, which could effectively block it from a Senate vote. The Connecticut Democrat, who does not serve on the Intelligence Committee, said on his presidential campaign Web site he opposed the telecom immunity provision.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said he voted against the committee’s bill because of the immunity provision, despite winning passage of the amendment on Americans overseas.

Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, also voted against the bill, citing the immunity provision and the lack of a warrant requirement when a suspect’s call involves Americans.

The immunity would not apply to any eavesdropping before September 11, 2001. Bond said that before then, “there was interception of radio communications on a broad basis,” but later described that as an allegation.

An administration official said earlier that aides were still reviewing provisions of the deal reached before the Senate committee met and had some concerns, but called it “much better” than the House bill.