WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on Friday that could shield phone companies from billions of dollars in lawsuits for their participation in the warrantless surveillance program begun by President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.
The White House-backed, compromise measure -- which triggered a firestorm of opposition from civil liberties groups -- would also overhaul U.S. spy powers and replace a temporary surveillance law that expired in February.
The Senate is expected to give the bill final approval next week with the help of the two major presidential contenders -- Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama -- clearing the way for Bush to sign it into law.
“It will help our intelligence professionals learn our enemies’ plans for new attacks,” Bush said just hours before the House approved the bill, 293-129. “It ensures that those companies whose assistance is necessary to protect the country will themselves be protected from liability.”
Democrats faced election-year pressure to pass the bill, fearing failure to do so would let Republicans paint them as weak on security and force them to accept what they saw as a more objectionable Senate version of the legislation.
Besides providing telecommunications companies with a court review of lawsuits, the bill would increase judicial and congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence activities and bolster protection of civil liberties -- but not as much as civil liberties groups and a number of Democrats would like.
Obama, a liberal Democrat from Illinois, and McCain, a conservative Arizona Republican, issued statements while out of town campaigning for the White House.
Obama said, “I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as president, I will carefully monitor the program ... and work with the Congress to take any additional steps I deem necessary to protect the lives -- and the liberty -- of the American people.”
Said McCain, “I will support this measure and hope that politics will be put aside in favor of this vital national security matter.”
Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union, denounced the bill, saying, “No matter how often the opposition calls this bill a ‘compromise,’ it is not a meaningful compromise, except of our constitutional rights.”
‘A SOUND BALANCE’
“This is not the bill I would have written in an ideal world,” said House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer, a chief negotiator of the measure. But, he added, “Together, we have worked to develop a bill that strikes a sound balance.”
The bill authorizes U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop, without court approval, on foreign targets believed to be outside the United States.
Critics complain this allows warrantless surveillance of Americans who communicate with them. The bill seeks to minimize such eavesdropping but foes say the safeguards are inadequate.
The measure also clarifies that to conduct electronic surveillance of a person in the United States, the government must obtain a warrant from U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The bill would not provide the retroactive immunity that Bush had demanded for telecommunication companies that took part in the warrantless spying program he started.
Instead, U.S. district courts would be able to dismiss a suit if there were written certification that the White House asked a company to participate and assured it the program was legal.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, described the bill as a sham.
“While the bill purports not to grant immunity ... it is in fact a mere fig leaf that effectively provides a complete legal shield to the companies for the invasions of privacy and illegal activities they may have committed,” Nadler charged.
About 40 civil lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating Americans’ privacy rights.
Damages could total in the billions of dollars.
Critics charge Bush, in authorizing his spy program, violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the government to get approval from a secret court to conduct electronic surveillance on foreign targets in the United States.
The president maintains he acted legally, saying he had the wartime power to authorize the program. But he put it under FISA jurisdiction in January 2007. Terms remain secret.
The bill requires FISA approval of U.S. procedures to monitor the phone calls and e-mails of enemy targets and directs inspectors general of a number of federal agencies to review the surveillance and report to Congress.
Editing by David Alexander and Vicki Allen