June 20, 2008 / 4:00 PM / 11 years ago

Bush urges passage of bill to overhaul spy power

WASHINGTON, June 20 (Reuters) - President George W. Bush urged Congress on Friday to pass a bill that would overhaul U.S. spy powers and could shield phone companies that took part in his warrantless surveillance program from billions of dollars in privacy lawsuits.

“This is a good bill,” Bush said at the White House just hours before the House of Representatives was expected to approve the measure and send it to the Senate for anticipated concurrence next week.

“It will help our intelligence professionals learn our enemies’ plans for new attacks,” Bush said. “It ensures that those companies whose assistance is necessary to protect the country will themselves be protected from liability for past or future cooperation with the government.”

In addition to providing telecommunication companies with a possible out from pending lawsuits, the bill would provide the most sweeping overhaul of U.S. spy powers in decades.

It would increase judicial and congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence activities and bolster protection of civil liberties — but not as much as some advocates would like.

Republican and Democratic negotiators wrote the bill, a compromise, with input from the White House.

It would not provide the blanket retroactive immunity that Bush initially demanded for telecommunication companies that took part in the warrantless domestic spying program that he secretly began shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Instead, it would allow federal district courts to determine if the evidence supports protection of the companies from civil liability.

The courts would be able to dismiss a suit if there is written certification that the White House asked a company to participate in the program and assured it was legal.

About 40 civil lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc (T.N), Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N) and Sprint Nextel Corp (S.N) of violating Americans’ privacy rights.

Damages could total in the billions of dollars.

Some U.S. lawmakers along with civil liberties groups have opposed shielding phone companies from lawsuits, saying the courts should first determine what the companies did.

But Bush and others have argued that these companies should be thanked, not punished, for agreeing to help protect the United States.

Critics charge Bush violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires the government receive secret-court approval to conduct surveillance on foreign targets in the United States.

In doing so, they complain, millions of law-abiding Americans who had contact with a foreign targets were swept up in Bush’s surveillance.

The president maintains he acted legally, saying he had the wartime power to authorize the program. He put it under FISA jurisdiction in January 2007. Terms remain secret.

The bill would replace a temporary law that expired in February that had expanded U.S. power to conduct warrantless surveillance. The measure would require FISA court approval of U.S. procedures in monitoring phone calls and e-mails. (Editing by David Storey and Philip Barbara)

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