WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Thursday rejected an attempt to expand a secret court's oversight of government eavesdropping, sticking instead with a surveillance bill favored by the White House.
The bill, which failed 60-36, would have strengthened the oversight powers of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It would have given the court the authority to monitor and enforce how the government protects the identities of innocent Americans whose communications may be inadvertently collected.
The Senate is grappling with a bill written by the Senate Intelligence Committee to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The law, first enacted in 1978, dictates when federal agents must obtain court permission before tapping phone and computer lines inside the United States to gather intelligence on foreign threats. Agents may tap lines outside the country without court oversight.
This is the second time the Senate has taken up the FISA modernization bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., abruptly closed debate in December when it became clear the Senate couldn't finish work before the holiday break.
Also Thursday, the White House ended months of resistance and agreed to give House members access to secret documents about its warrantless wiretapping program.
The Bush administration is trying to persuade the House to protect from civil lawsuits the telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on Americans without the approval of the FISA court.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and senior Republican Pete Hoekstra of Michigan requested the documents in May. House Democrats say they will not support telecom immunity without seeing them first. Some senators were given access to the documents last fall.
House Intelligence and Judiciary committee members and staff were to begin reading the documents at the White House on Thursday. The White House is only granting access to 19 House Judiciary committee members, mirroring the number of Senate Judiciary Committee members who also got to see the documents.
The documents include the president's authorization of warrantless wiretapping, Justice Department legal opinions going back to 2001, and the requests sent to the telecommunications companies asking for their assistance.
Senators are up against a deadline: the Feb. 1 expiration of the surveillance law. If a new law is not passed by then, some eavesdropping practices that are now legal would be prohibited. Most vexing to the intelligence agencies, the government would have to get court orders to listen in on all communications that pass through U.S. telecommunications switches and computer servers, even those that are between people outside the country.
Retroactive legal immunity for telecommunications companies is the most contentious issue. The Senate is expected to vote this week on whether to shield the companies from the roughly 40 pending civil lawsuits alleging violations of communications and wiretapping laws. The White House says if the cases go forward they could reveal information that would compromise national security. It also contends that the companies could be bankrupted if the lawsuits are successful.
The companies were helping the administration carry out the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program, a still-classified effort that intercepted communications on U.S. soil without oversight from the FISA court from Sept. 11, 2001, to Jan. 17, 2007.
President Bush pushed Thursday for congressional Democrats to extend the government's eavesdropping powers. In a statement, he said the law has allowed the intelligence community to monitor the communications of terrorists. "Congress' action or lack of action on this important issue will directly affect our ability to keep Americans safe," Bush said.
The White House favors the Senate Intelligence Committee's version of the FISA modernization bill, which provides immunity.