Tapped: Senate Passes Bill Expanding Government Spy Powers

| Tue Feb. 12, 2008 5:59 PM EST

Voting 68 to 29, the Senate has passed a controverial government surveillance bill, providing telecom companies retroactive immunity.

Bill co-consponsor Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) defended the controversial bill, in a press statement: "This is a very good bill that achieves what we set out to accomplish – restore civil liberty protections through proper FISA court oversight, and allow for targeted surveillance of potential terrorists."

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid disagrees, explaining his vote against the bill in a press statement:

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"The Senate's debate on FISA has made the Intelligence Committee's bill somewhat better by adding a number of protections from the Judiciary Committee's version. The Senate adopted amendments offered by Senators Kennedy, Feingold and Whitehouse that improve title I of the bill, concerning the procedures that will be used to conduct this kind of surveillance in the future.

"But the Senate rejected amendments to strike or modify title II, concerning immunity for telecommunications companies who may have broken the law by abiding the White House's request for warrantless wiretaps on American citizens. I believe that the White House and any companies who broke the law must be held accountable. In their unyielding efforts to expand Presidential powers, President Bush and Vice-President Cheney created a system to conduct wiretapping – including on American citizens – outside the bounds of longstanding federal law. ...

"The White House should bear responsibility for this reckless disdain for the rule of law. But it also appears that many companies followed the Administration's orders without regard for our laws, our privacy or basic common sense.

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) supported and co-sponsored Title I of the bill, but opposed its most controversial measure, Title II which granted the telecom companies retroactive immunity. "Title II would eliminate accountability by granting retroactivmmunity for telecommunications providers who disclosed communications and other confidential information of their customers at the behest of government officials," Levin said in a letter to the president released to the press. "They did this despite a law specifically making it illegal to do so.... Retroactive immunity is not fair. It is not wise. And it is not necessary."

Many Senate Democrats, with a razor thin majority, and concerned about being portrayed as soft on terrorism, considered this a no-win issue for them. "The Democrats barely have a majority, and the Republicans are voting in lock step, with the exception of Sen. Specter on occasion," Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, was cited by Congressional Quarterly today, explaining why the final bill with diluted civil liberties protections and retroactive immunity would likely pass.