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2706Senate Passes Bill to Expand Government’s Spying Powers

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  • Greg Cannon
    Feb 12, 2008

      Senate Passes Bill to Expand Government’s Spying
      Doug Mills/The New York Times

      Published: February 12, 2008

      WASHINGTON — After more than a year of heated
      political wrangling, the Senate handed the White House
      a major victory Tuesday by voting to broaden the
      government’s spy powers after giving legal protection
      to phone companies that cooperated in President Bush’s
      warrantless eavesdropping program.

      The Senate rejected a series of amendments that would
      have restricted the government’s surveillance powers
      and eliminated immunity for the phone carriers, and it
      voted in convincing fashion — 69 to 29 — to end debate
      and bring the issue to a final vote. That vote on the
      overall bill was an almost identical 68 to 29.

      The House has already rejected the idea of immunity
      for the phone companies, and Democratic leaders
      reacted angrily to the Senate vote. But Congressional
      officials said it appeared that the House would
      ultimately be forced to accept some sort of legal
      protection for the phone carriers in negotiations
      between the two chambers this week.

      The Senate debate amounted to a proxy vote not only on
      the president’s warrantless wiretapping program, but
      also on a range of other issues that tested the
      president’s wartime authority, from secret detentions
      to wiretapping issues. The discussion in effect
      presaged the debate over national security that will
      play out this year in the presidential and
      congressional elections.

      Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who spoke
      on the Senate floor for more than 20 hours in an
      unsuccessful effort to stall the wiretapping bill,
      said the vote would be remembered by future
      generations as a test of whether the country heeds
      “the rule of law or the rule of men.”

      But with Democrats defecting to the White House plan,
      he acknowledged that the national security issue had
      won the day in the Senate, even among many of his
      Democratic colleagues. “Unfortunately, those who are
      advocating this notion that you have to give up
      liberties to be more secure are apparently
      prevailing,” Mr. Dodd said. “They’re convincing people
      that we’re at risk either politically, or at risk as a

      With resistance led by Mr. Dodd and Senators Russ
      Feingold of Wisconsin, critics of the administration’s
      plan argued that it effectively rewarded phone
      companies by providing them with legal insulation for
      actions that violated longstanding law and their own
      fiduciary responsibilities to their customers.
      Immunity would protect the phone companies from some
      40 lawsuits now pending that charge the firms broke
      the law by taking part in the program.

      But supporters of the plan said the phone carriers
      acted out of patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks in
      complying with what they believed in good faith was a
      legally binding order from the president. Republicans
      were able to garner the support of 19 Democrats and
      Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. Democratic
      leaders charged that the tactics the Republicans used
      smacked of fear-mongering.

      “This, I believe, is the right way to go for the
      security of the nation,” said Senator John D.
      Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who leads
      the intelligence committee and who was a pivotal
      supporter of the White House-backed plan approved

      Beyond the immunity provision, the Senate measure
      would also widen the executive branch’s surveillance
      powers by allowing the National Security Agency and
      intelligence agencies to use broad orders — without
      getting court orders in advance — to eavesdrop on
      groups of overseas targets, rather than using
      individualized warrants.