WASHIGNTON - Agence France-Presse
The U.S. Senate passed a bill expanding legal authority for electronic wiretaps by spy agencies, handing victory to President George W. Bush after a standoff over anti-terror strategy.
The measure includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications firms, which aided warrant less government surveillance operations following the September 11 attacks in 2001 -- a key demand of the White House.
The bill sparked fierce debate between civil liberties advocates who argue it eroded checks on the power of government and intelligence officials who feared the row was compromising their power to thwart terror attacks.
Senators voted on Wednesday 69 to 28 to pass the measure, after blocking several attempts to water down the immunity for telecom firms.
Bush said the new law would help U.S. intelligence agencies "learn who the terrorists are talking to, what they're saying, and what they're planning."
"This legislation is critical to America's safety. It is long overdue," the president said, in the White House Rose Garden, as he arrived home from the G8 summit in Japan.
After the September 11 attacks, Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on calls and email between the United States and abroad in cases that federal agents deemed may have a terror link.
The wiretaps went ahead without the permission of a special court set up to watch over government wiretapping operations inside the United States, provided for under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.
The program, revealed in 2005, caused public outcry and opponents argued that US privacy guarantees meant the intelligence agencies should seek court warrants from the FISA court to conduct such spying inside the country.
The standoff between Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House took on extra political significance after presidential hopeful Barack Obama reversed his opposition to the measure, backing a compromise hammered out in the House of Representatives.
This led to claims he was ditching previous political positions in a bid to claim the crucial center ground ahead of the general election and Republicans said he would stop at nothing to get elected.
Even some of Obama's top supporters were dismayed, and started a discussion community on his own website in protest.
Obama addressed the controversy in a blog post on his website.
"This was not an easy call for me. I know that the FISA bill that passed the House is far from perfect," Obama wrote.
"I wouldn't have drafted the legislation like this, and it does not resolve all of the concerns that we have about President Bush's abuse of executive power.
"It grants retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that may have violated the law by cooperating with the Bush Administration's program of warrant less wiretapping."
But Obama said the bill did provide legal safeguards to bring warrant less wiretapping into the auspices of the courts.
"In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people," he said, but added an independent monitor must watch over that power to protect civil liberties.
"This compromise law assures that the FISA court has that responsibility."
New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who lost the Democratic nomination to Obama, voted to block the bill. Republican White House candidate John McCain did not vote as he was campaigning.
Privacy advocates were dismayed.
"It is an immeasurable tragedy," said Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The new law says that the FISA court mechanism is the only way the government can order electronic surveillance of terror suspects.
The 1978 law allowed the ultra-secretive National Security Agency to wiretap for 72 hours while waiting for the FISA court to approve the action.
The new law, however, gives the agency a week, and it also allows them to use any information they got even if the FISA court eventually rules that the wiretap is unlawful.