The Senate Intelligence Committee approved legislation Thursday that would place new controls on the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program, but includes provisions sought by the White House to protect telecommunications companies from lawsuits for aiding the government spying effort.
The measure, passed 13-2, represents a tentative deal between a key Senate panel and the White House. The issue has been a source of acrimony since it was revealed nearly two years ago that Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without court warrants on conversations of Americans.
But the committee’s compromise faces a series of challenges. Those include opposition from other members of the Senate as well as a competing House bill that would impose tighter restrictions on spy agencies and deny any legal protections to phone companies.
The Senate measure is the product of weeks of discussions between the Bush administration and the nation’s top intelligence officials with Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the intelligence committee, and Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the panel’s ranking Republican.
As part of the negotiations, Rockefeller, Bond and other members were granted access this week to previously secret documents outlining the administration’s legal rationale for the warrantless surveillance program.
Their bill would give a special federal court expanded authority to monitor an espionage program that was first authorized by Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The measure is designed to overhaul a 1978 law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that was passed to crack down on domestic spying abuses by the CIA and other agencies. Top U.S. intelligence officials have pressed for sweeping revisions, arguing that the law has not kept pace with the emergence of the Internet, the spread of cellphones and other telecommunications advances.
Under the Senate committee’s approach, the NSA -- which eavesdrops on electronic communications around the world -- would have clear authority to intercept calls and e-mails between foreigners, even when they cross over networks inside the United States.
The bill would also allow the NSA to monitor communications between a suspect overseas and someone in the United States, without a warrant. Instead, the government would be required to win court approval for the procedures it uses to determine that its surveillance targets are outside the country.
Other provisions in the legislation -- which would expire in six years -- require the government to get court approval whenever an American is targeted overseas.
“The individual freedoms of an American in the Digital Age shouldn’t hinge on geography,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who pushed an amendment containing the requirements for Americans overseas. Even so, Wyden opposed committee approval, as did Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). Both cited concerns over retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies.
The overall measure is designed to scale back aspects of a similar bill that Congress passed two months ago in an end-of-summer scramble that left some lawmakers complaining they had gone too far in sacrificing civil liberties protections under pressure from the White House.
But even before the Senate committee unveiled its approach, the measure was under attack for what its critics said was granting the Bush administration and the nation’s spy services too much authority.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, a Democratic presidential candidate, denounced the plan to give phone companies liability protection, and threatened to use procedural maneuvers to keep the bill from coming to a Senate vote.
“The president has no right to secretly eavesdrop on the conversations and activities of law-abiding American citizens, and anyone who has aided and abetted him in these illegal activities should be held accountable,” Dodd said in a statement.
Rockefeller and Bond defended the immunity provision, saying that the companies had been approached in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and were led to believe that the government’s requests for access to their networks were lawful.
“Private companies who received legal assurances from the highest levels of government should not be dragged through the courts for their help with national security,” Rockefeller said. “The onus is on the administration, not the companies, to ensure that the request is on strong legal footing, and if it is not, it is the administration that should be held accountable.”
Some of the nation’s largest phone companies and Internet carriers are already facing lawsuits accusing them of improperly surrendering their customer data to the government and granting the NSA extensive access to the calls and e-mails flowing across their networks.
The intelligence committee measure must next be reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose senior members have voiced skepticism about plans to grant immunity to telecommunications firms.
A House plan to vote on a competing measure was derailed Wednesday by a Republican parliamentary maneuver that would have specified that the measure could not restrict spy agencies from eavesdropping on the communications of Osama bin Laden or other terrorist figures.
Democrats said they planned to reintroduce the bill.