Senate Committee Approves Bill Tightening Court Oversight Over Gov't Surveillance

Friday, October 19th 2007, 8:14 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Immunity for telecommunications companies that tapped Americans' telephones and computers without court approval could present a hurdle for a bill written to strengthen oversight of government surveillance.

The Senate Intelligence Committee approval Thursday of the bill, 13-2, doesn't guarantee the legislation will become law. It still must get the blessing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose top Republican and Democratic members have expressed skepticism about the immunity provision.

The bill also remains stalled in the House. It ran aground Wednesday in a partisan dispute over the immunity issue and the broader question of how much oversight power the courts should have over surveillance.

The Senate bill would direct civil courts to dismiss lawsuits against telecommunications companies if the attorney general certifies the company rendered assistance between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 17, 2007, in response to a written request authorized by the president, to help detect or prevent an attack on the United States.

Suits also would be dismissed if the attorney general certifies that a company named in the case provided no assistance to the government. The public record would not reflect which certification was given to the court.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said any warrantless wiretapping conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks would not be covered by the immunity provision of the bill.

Exactly what electronic surveillance the Bush administration has conducted inside the United States is classified.

Under current rules, the government can tap Americans' phone and computer lines outside the country if the attorney general certifies that the American is believed to be an agent of a foreign power. The new bill would require the government to get a court order to eavesdrop on Americans wherever they are in the world.