The Senate approved espionage legislation Tuesday that would expand the government’s authority to intercept international phone calls and e-mails and to block lawsuits against U.S. telecommunications companies that aided in past spying efforts.
The 68-29 vote was a victory for the White House, which has battled Congress for two years over the legality of an eavesdropping operation -- launched by President Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks -- that involved intercepting calls in the United States without court warrants.
Despite Senate passage, the fate of the legislation remains uncertain. The Senate bill has to be reconciled with competing legislation that passed in the House. Democrats in that chamber have opposed shielding the phone companies from liability for taking part in what some members have called an illegal spying operation.
Senior congressional aides said there was no clear path to a compromise on the issue. But a series of recent defections by moderate Democrats in the House raises prospects that the White House position -- or something close to it -- eventually may prevail.
As part of a stopgap measure passed last month, the government’s existing surveillance powers are to expire Friday.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said the measure would “restore civil liberties protections . . . and allow for targeted surveillance of potential terrorists.”
But critics said the vote sacrificed civil liberties in a capitulation to the White House. Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) said the Senate had let the Bush administration “off the hook for its illegal wiretapping program.”
Among the presidential hopefuls in the Senate, John McCain (R-Ariz.) voted in favor of the bill; Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) did not vote.
Tuesday’s vote was the latest in a series of halting attempts by Congress to update a 30-year-old statute known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs how the United States carries out electronic espionage.
The debate centers on how to update the law to accommodate new technologies, including the Internet and cellular telephones, and preserve long-standing privacy protections for Americans.
The Senate bill, set to expire after six years, would bolster the authority of a secret surveillance court to oversee the activities of the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on phone calls and e-mail traffic around the world. The measure would require the government to obtain a warrant whenever the target of surveillance is a U.S. citizen.
But the bill would give the NSA sweeping new powers to intercept phone calls and e-mails traveling through fiber optic cables in the U.S. and would compel the nation’s largest phone carriers to grant access to their networks.
Top intelligence officials have testified that being able to tap into those U.S. networks -- and not be slowed by a requirement to obtain a warrant -- is crucial to monitoring the communications of Al Qaeda and other adversaries. That is because much of the world’s communications traffic, even calls that start and end overseas, passes through U.S. networks.
The House and Senate agree on the outlines of these authorities, though they differ to some extent on the powers of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor the NSA and prevent abuse.
Their main disagreement centers on whether to grant retroactive legal immunity to phone companies facing lawsuits for cooperating in a White House program that bypassed the FISA court and that was kept secret from all but a handful of members of Congress.
Key Senate Democrats argued that the companies shouldn’t be punished for complying with requests that the Bush administration led them to believe were legal. “The fact is, if we lose cooperation from these or other private companies, our national security will suffer,” Rockefeller said.
Bush has threatened to veto any bill that doesn’t include protection for the companies.
Leading House Democrats have resisted, saying that the companies shouldn’t be shielded from liability for taking part in what many call an illegal surveillance program.
Democratic leaders were in negotiations Tuesday over possible compromise language or temporary extensions to give both sides time to work out a deal. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said Tuesday that he planned to oppose the Senate bill.
But there were signs that other Democrats were prepared to endorse the Senate approach and avoid further debate on a national security issue that many say plays to the political strengths of the White House and Republicans.
Reluctant to be portrayed as depriving the government of a key tool in the war on terrorism, 21 members of a bloc of moderate House Democrats signed a letter endorsing the Senate approach. Senior Democratic aides said those defections suggested there might be enough support in the House to pass the Senate bill.