Thursday, December 27, 2007

Security Verses Privacy in Senate

Security vs. privacy in Senate; Vote on phone tap rules put off till January; FREE PRESS NEWS SERVICES; December 18, 2007.

After hours of debate over whether the need to eavesdrop on potential terrorists outweighs citizens' expectations that private communications remain private, the Senate late Monday delayed a vote on an eavesdropping bill until January.

Majority Leader Harry Reid said more than a dozen amendments were planned, without enough time to manage them.

At issue is an update to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which dictates when federal agents must get court permission before tapping phone and computer lines in the United States to gather intelligence on possible foreign threats. Lines outside the country can be tapped without court permission.

The question is what to do with telecommunications companies that helped with government phone taps after the 9/11 attacks. The surveillance was done without permission from the secret court created 30 years ago to protect Americans from unwarranted government intrusions on their privacy.

"For the last six years, our largest telecom companies have been spying on their own American customers," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a presidential candidate.

About 40 lawsuits are pending against the companies -- AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp. and others -- alleging violations of communications and wiretapping laws.

The suits claim that millions of records of Americans' phone calls and e-mails were analyzed. The amounts sought by the suits add up in the billions.

The White House threatened a veto of any bill that doesn't provide retroactive immunity, saying that if the cases proceed they could reveal information that would compromise national security.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's version of the bill provides it; a competing version from the Judiciary Committee does not.

Among the potential amendments is one by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who wants the government to stand in for telecommunications companies as the defendant in the cases. The Judiciary Committee didn't put such a provision in its version.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced an immunity amendment that would leave it to the 15 judges on the special court to decide whether the companies merit protection from lawsuits.

The new bill would replace a temporary eavesdropping law Congress passed in August. That law, which expanded the government's authority to listen in on U.S. communications without court permission, expires Feb. 1.

The White House wants permanent new legislation, contending that changes in technology have made the 1978 law an obstacle to intelligence gathering.

It requires the government to get court approval before conducting electronic surveillance on U.S. soil, even if the target is a foreign citizen in a foreign country. But many international communications are now routed through fiber-optic cables and computers in the United States.

The White House wants authority to monitor foreign communications involving Americans without first getting court approval, as long as the American isn't the intended target of surveillance.

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