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House Democrats may move to split spy bill

Times Staff Writer

Under pressure to end an impasse over espionage legislation, House Democrats are considering a plan to vote on a bill next week that would give the government broad new eavesdropping authorities but strip out a provision that would protect phone companies from lawsuits.

Senior Democratic aides said the plan would set up a separate vote on the divisive issue of whether to grant legal immunity to phone companies that took part in a secret wiretapping program authorized by President Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The objective would be to pass something that is less controversial,” yet still allow Democrats to register their objections to the immunity provision, said one senior Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other party leaders have yet to reach a decision on the matter.

The proposal emerged Friday as a possible endgame in the drawn-out congressional debate over how to overhaul laws that govern when and how American spy agencies can intercept international e-mails and phone calls coming into the United States.

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Republican officials said they likely would back the proposal to divide the bill into two pieces, as long as there was no delay in taking up the immunity provision. “We would be OK with that as long as the immunity provision [can] become law,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Officials from both sides acknowledged that there are probably enough votes in the House to pass the measure protecting telephone companies. But splitting the bill would give Democrats who oppose the immunity provision political cover for voting in favor of the broader legislation.

The issue has divided lawmakers since it was revealed in December 2005 that Bush had secretly authorized a program in which the National Security Agency intercepted the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens without prior court approval.

Critics contend that the program violated laws passed in the late 1970s that cracked down on abuses by U.S. spy agencies. Pelosi and many other Democrats have fought against granting legal liability protection to companies who took part in the program, saying that to do so would be to shield private firms for their involvement in an illegal operation.

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AT&T;, Verizon and other major carriers are accused of giving the government extensive access to their networks and face dozens of lawsuits alleging civil liberties violations.

Bush has argued that the cooperation of such companies is crucial to the nation’s ability to monitor the communications of members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, largely because much of the world’s telephone and e-mail traffic passes through data networks in the United States.

“You cannot expect phone companies to participate if they feel like they’re going to be sued,” Bush said Thursday during a news conference.

A temporary espionage law that Congress passed last summer expired in February, prompting warnings from top intelligence officials that phone companies could curb their cooperation and create dangerous intelligence gaps. Under the law, much of the eavesdropping can continue for a year before it has to be reauthorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

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The Senate has already passed legislation that would bolster the authority of the surveillance court, expand the government’s eavesdropping authority and grant the phone companies retroactive liability protection. But the issue has been stalled in the House.

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greg.miller@latimes.com


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