WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush won final congressional approval on Wednesday of a bill granting liability protection to telecommunication companies that took part in the warrantless domestic spying program he began after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The measure shields those firms from potentially billions of dollars in damages from privacy lawsuits implements the biggest overhaul of U.S. spy laws in three decades.
On a vote of 69-28, the Senate approved the measure, previously passed by the House of Representatives, and prepared to send the legislation to Bush to sign into law.
With Bush’s term set to end in January, the vote marked perhaps one his final triumphs on Capitol Hill but drew a firestorm of criticism from civil liberties groups.
“This bill will help our intelligence professionals learn who the terrorists are talking to, what they’re saying, and what they’re planning,” Bush declared, hailing its passage.
“It will ensure that those companies whose assistance is necessary to protect the country will, themselves, be protected from lawsuits for past or future cooperation,” he said.
The measure replaces a temporary law that expired in February and modernizes the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to keep pace with technology.
It will also bolster judicial and congressional oversight of U.S. surveillance of foreign targets and increase protection of civil liberties of law-abiding Americans swept up in such spy efforts — but not as much as critics wanted.
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 the phone calls and e-mails of Americans who communicate with them. The bill seeks to minimize such eavesdropping on Americans, but critics say the safeguards are inadequate.
“This bill is not a compromise. It is a capitulation,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.
Lisa Graves of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties think tank, said the bill would result in more warrantless spying and enable the National Security Agency to “build the largest database of American communications ever constructed.”
Democrats faced election-year pressure to pass the bill, fearing failure to do so would let Republicans portray them as soft on security,
Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, had opposed immunity for telecoms. But he ended up voting for the bill after a failed effort to strip liability protection out of the measure.
Obama drew fire from Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who supports the bill and has sought to portray the Illinois Democrat as a “flip-flopper.”
“Not the first change in position,” McCain said of Obama’s switch while campaigning in Pennsylvania. Unlike Obama, Sen. McCain of Arizona did not interrupt his campaign to vote. There was more than enough support to win passage without him.
Critics charge Bush, in secretly authorizing his spy program in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, violated the 1978 law which required the government to get approval from a secret court to conduct electronic surveillance on foreign targets in the United States.
Bush 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.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Jeff Mason; Editing by Alan Elsner