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US lawmakers pass contentious spying bill

Latest update : 2008-06-20

In a late-term triumph for US President George W. Bush, the US House of Representatives approved spy-powers legislation that has drawn heavy fire from civil liberties groups.

Lawmakers voted 293-129 for a bill that may shield telecommunications firms facing massive lawsuits over their work with Bush's secret, six-year, warrantless wiretapping program, begun after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The measure now goes to the Senate, where Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid has opposed granting retroactive immunity to companies that cooperated with a program thought to have skirted established surveillance laws.

During often bitter House floor debate, many Democrats broke with the measure, the fruit of months of talks among Senate and House leaders of both parties that ultimately gave in to key White House demands.

"It's Christmas morning at the White House thanks to this vote," said Caroline Fredrickson, a top official with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which has fiercely opposed the legislation.

Earlier, Bush had used a hastily announced public statement at the White House to press lawmakers to approve new funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and pushed hard for House passage of the intelligence bill.

"It's vital that our intelligence community has the ability to learn who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning," Bush said the two-minute statement.

The spending bill would provide 162 billion dollars for conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, fuelling both for months after his successor takes over in January, without attaching a withdrawal timetable sought by Iraq war opponents.

But the bitterest feuding was over the intelligence bill, which came amid a pitched political battle raging over Bush's decision to secretly launch a warrantless wiretapping program believed to have skirted surveillance law.

Critics charge the secret program was illegal because it ran afoul of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)'s requirement of a court order to spy on US citizens inside the United States.

The White House says Bush, who brought the program under FISA oversight in January 2007, made proper use of wartime presidential powers under the US Constitution and that the often-updated law was ill-suited to deal with modern telecommunications and the nature of the terrorist threat.

If passed, the new measure could short-circuit about 40 court challenges targeting major US telecommunications firms that cooperated with the program, which the US public learned about in a December 2005 New York Times article.

"This is a good bill. It will help our intelligence professionals learn the enemy's plans for new attacks. It ensures that those companies whose assistance is necessary to protect the country will themselves be protected from liability for past or future cooperation with the government," said Bush.

"The proposed FISA deal is not a compromise; it is a capitulation," said Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, taking aim in particular at the retroactive immunity for any lawbreaking under Bush's secret program.

The fighting over the surveillance law and the war in Iraq come as the US presidential campaign has heated up -- and Bush has adopted a take-no-prisoners approach to belittling his Democratic critics on national security issues.

"The war on terror is the great challenge of our time. And on this vital issue, the Democratic Party has repeatedly shown it would take America down the wrong direction," he said in a speech Wednesday.

"They want to retreat from Iraq and hope nothing bad happens. But wishful thinking is no way to fight a war," they said.
 

Date created : 2008-06-20

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