Congress Reaches Deal on Wiretapping Bill

ERIC LICHTBLAU, New York Times, June 20, 2008

WASHINGTON — After months of wrangling, Democratic and Republican leaders reached a deal Thursday that would re-write the rules for the government’s wiretapping powers, and would provide what amounts to limited immunity to the telephone companies that took part in President Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The deal would expand the government’s powers in some key respects. It would allow intelligence officials to use broad warrants to eavesdrop on foreign targets, and to conduct emergency wiretaps on American targets without warrants if it is determined that important national security information would be lost otherwise.

The deal would also make the phone companies involved in the post-Sept. 11 program immune from legal liability if a district court determines that they received valid requests from the government directing their participation in the warrantless wiretapping operation.

Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic leader who helped draft the compromise, said he believed the proposal would give the government the surveillance tools it needs to detect terrorist threats while also incorporating more civil rights safeguards to protect against abuses. “It is the result of compromise, and like any compromise, is not perfect,” he said. “But I believe it strikes a sound balance.”

The bill could be brought to a vote on the House floor as soon as Friday, but it may face opposition from two quarters: conservatives who believe it does not give the National Security Agency enough freedom of action, and liberals who charge that it retroactively sanctions illegal conduct by the president. “No matter how they spin it, this is still immunity,” said Kevin Bankston, a senior lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group that has sued over the president’s wiretapping program. “It’s not compromise, it’s pure theater.”

The government’s spying powers have been at the center of a months-long game of chicken between congressional Democrats and Republicans. House Democrats infuriated Mr. Bush in February by allowing a temporary surveillance measure to expire, leading to intense negotiations over how and whether to revive the proposal. Some critics of the administration have pushed to allow the issue to lie dormant until the next president takes office, but the White House has called that idea dangerous and unacceptable.

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