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Senate Approves Hotly Contested FISA Bill

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A hotly debated overhaul of the nation's rule on eavesdropping will soon become law. A bipartisan vote in the Senate gave final passage yesterday to a rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. At the heart of the dispute, President Bush's insistence that the bill shield phone companies from lawsuits for their role in his administration's warrantless wiretap program.

NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: Within an hour of the Senate giving its final approval to the intelligence law overhaul, President Bush was out in the White House Rose Garden celebrating what was clearly a victory handed to him by a Democratic-led Congress.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Months ago, my administration set out key criteria that this intelligence legislation would have to have, before I would sign it into law, the attorney general and the director of national intelligence report that the bill Congress passed today meets these criteria. And therefore I will soon sign the bill into law.

WELNA: What the president demanded and got was a provision in the FISA overhaul that is all but certain to lead to the dismissal of some 40 lawsuits bought against phone companies during the past three years. Under the law, district courts will be required to dismiss the lawsuits, once the phone companies produce documents showing the government requested their assistance after the 9/11 attacks.

Those companies, which include AT&T and Verizon, are known to have such documents. Arlen Specter, who's the top Republican on the judiciary committee, says the problem is that most senators have never been told what the warrantless surveillance actually entailed.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): This may be an historical embarrassment where we are voting on matters where everybody knows we don't know what we're voting on.

WELNA: But Kit Bond, who's the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, argued it was the duty of senators to give relief to the phone companies.

Senator CHRISTOPHER BOND (Republican, Missouri): They are taking risks by being good patriotic Americans, and there's some who want to punish them. They want to kick them to get at the administration.

WELNA: Not one Republican voted against the FISA overhaul, while a majority of Democrats did, including Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama was among 21 Democrats who voted for the bill, a reversal of his earlier opposition to any legislation containing immunity for the phone companies. Obama did vote for a failed attempt to strip out the immunity provision.

The intelligence panel's Democratic chairman Jay Rockefeller also backed the bill, and essentially said the immunity provisions might have been worse.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia; Chairman, Intelligence Committee): These provisions are not the blanket immunity that the administration first proposed, nor are they a statement by the Congress, either pro or con, on the legality of the program.

WELNA: Those who've opposed the FISA rewrite, including many civil liberties advocates, were scornfully dismissed by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch as imagining government conspiracies.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Many of the people who make arguments against this should join the black helicopter crowd and wear tin foil hats, and I think they'd be in greater company.

WELNA: That prompted a sharp response from Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who is perhaps the most outspoken opponent in Congress of the revised FISA legislation.

Senator RUSSELL FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): Well, apparently we've been lumped into, by the senator from Utah, as part of the black helicopter crowd. I assure you the coalition in this country that has concerns about this bill is much broader than any such characterization.

WELNA: The biggest concern, said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, is that Americans who feel their privacy was violated by the warrantless surveillance may never have their day in court.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Judiciary Committee): We would take away the only avenue for Americans to seek redress for harms to their privacy and their liberties. And there will likely be no judicial review of this administration's illegal actions.

WELNA: Many of the Democrats who did vote for the bill also face election bids next fall.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.