After a yearlong battle over U.S. wiretapping laws, House and Senate leaders announced a compromise Thursday on legislation to expand the government’s eavesdropping authority and protect telephone companies that cooperate from being sued.
If approved, the compromise would give U.S. spy agencies sweeping power to siphon international e-mails and phone calls from fiber-optic networks in the United States.
But the measure would require the government to obtain approval from a special court for its eavesdropping procedures, and would generally prohibit eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without an individual warrant.
The deal was supported by the White House, which called it “a good bill that meets the standards” set by President Bush.
The agreement signaled an end to a bitter standoff between the Bush administration and leading House Democrats, who had blocked previous bills over concerns that they would sanction an illegal wiretapping program and shield phone companies from liability. But Democrats lacked the votes needed to prevail, and seemed eager to resolve an election-year dispute that often played to the political advantage of Republicans.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who played a leading role in the negotiations, said the compromise “is not perfect, but I believe it strikes a sound balance.”
The deal was criticized by some Democrats. Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the proposal “is not a compromise, it is a capitulation. . . . Democrats should be standing up to the flawed and dangerous policies of this administration.”
But the measure largely tracks legislation that cleared the Senate last year, and now appears poised to prevail in the House as well. Congressional officials said the House could vote on the measure as early as today, followed by a Senate vote next week.
Feingold and others were particularly critical of a provision that would scuttle dozens of lawsuits filed against AT&T;, Verizon and other telecommunications firms accused of granting the government extensive access to their networks over the last six years.
Their cooperation came as part of a warrantless-wiretapping program secretly authorized by Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, which allowed spy agencies to monitor international calls and e-mails without court approval. Critics contend that companies should not be protected for taking part in an operation that may have violated decades-old domestic surveillance laws.
The new bill would require federal courts to cast those lawsuits aside if the companies can show that they received written requests from the government stating that their cooperation was deemed lawful and had been authorized by the president.
“The telecom companies simply have to produce a piece of paper we already know exists,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of legislative affairs for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. “This bill does nothing to keep Americans safe and is a constitutional farce.”
Fredrickson said the bill was inferior in other ways to a House bill adopted last year. That bill, she said, had stronger language prohibiting so-called reverse targeting, in which the government might eavesdrop on the calls of a U.S. citizen by monitoring overseas recipients of those calls.
Proponents of the bill said other laws preclude U.S. spy agencies from such monitoring, and that any information inadvertently collected on U.S. citizens as part of an eavesdropping operation would have to be discarded under so-called minimization procedures.
Overall, the bill represents a major revision of U.S. laws governing electronic espionage, a legislative overhaul that was fueled by fears of losing track of the communications of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda in the Internet age.
The measure would remove requirements that the government obtain individual warrants to monitor communications that enter or exit the United States. Instead, the government would be able to get blanket pre-approval to start surveillance on broad categories of communications and groups.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the bill would “put the intelligence community back in business.”
The new powers would expire in 2012.
The measure comes on the heels of a series of stop-gap attempts to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and provide a legal foundation for the warrantless wiretapping program authorized by Bush.