The U.S. Senate has delayed a vote on a controversial surveillance bill that would allow a U.S. National Security Agency spying program to continue and would likely result in the dismissal of dozens of lawsuits against telecom carriers that participated in the program.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, announced Friday that the Senate would take up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act when it returns from a week-long recess for the Independence Day holiday. The Senate will debate the bill July 8, with three amendments allowed, he said.
Several Democrats will likely push for an amendment that would take out the section of the bill that would likely lead to the dismissal of more than 40 lawsuits against telecom carriers that allegedly participated in the NSA program. The original version of the surveillance program began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., and it was used to spy on phone calls and electronic communication of people outside the U.S. with suspected ties to terrorist organizations.
Civil liberties organizations have objected to the NSA program because, for more than four years, it was done in secret and allowed surveillance of U.S. residents who were talking to the overseas suspects without court oversight such as warrants. The program was illegal under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, civil liberties groups have said.
The FISA Amendments Act is part of a compromise between some congressional Democrats and U.S. President George Bush's administration. It would allow the NSA program to go forward with some court oversight, and it would send the dozens of outstanding lawsuits against telecom carriers for their alleged participation to a district court, which will review whether they should be dismissed.
The lawsuits would be thrown out if telecom companies can show that the U.S. government issued them orders for the surveillance that were presented by government officials as legal. Seventeen U.S. telecom carriers participated in the program, Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said earlier this week.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted 293 to 129 to approve the FISA Amendments Act on June 20, but many Democrats there opposed the bill.
Senate critics of the legislation said it would legitimize the NSA surveillance program.
"There are no consequences for illegal behavior" in the bill, said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.
Telecoms that participated and government officials involved in the surveillance should be held accountable, added Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent. "We are a nation of laws, not of men," Sanders said. "The president is not the law. The law is the law. I don't want to set a precedent by which any president can tell any company or any individual, 'you go out and do it, don't worry about it, no problem at all.'"
But supporters said the FISA Amendments Act gives significantly more protections to U.S. residents than the old surveillance program. The bill allows spying without warrants only in emergencies and only for seven days, and it prohibits U.S. presidents from creating surveillance programs outside control of the FISA court, said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.
The provision prohibiting spying programs outside of FISA "is what keeps history from repeating itself and [surveillance] going outside the law," Feinstein said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
If Congress does not approve the FISA Amendments Act, U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts will be crippled, she added. A temporary extension of the spying program, called the Protect America Act, expired in February.
Feinstein and several other senators defended the telecom immunity provision in the bill. "Companies were told after 9/11 that their assistance was needed to help prevent further attacks," she said. "They were told the surveillance program was authorized and it was legal."
The telecom carriers should be congratulated, not sued, added Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican. "Thank you for enduring years of frivolous lawsuits you did not deserve but have been a penalty for your patriotism," he said.