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Latest update : 2008-07-09

US senators voted 69 to 28 in favor of a bill increasing electronic surveillance authority for intelligence agencies, and shielding telecommunication companies that took part in unwarranted domestic spying following the 9/11 attacks.

The US Senate on Wednesday passed a bill expanding legal authority for electronic wiretaps by spy agencies, handing victory to President George W. Bush after a standoff over anti-terror strategy.

The measure included retroactive immunity for telecommunications firms which aided warrantless government surveillance operations following the September 11 attacks in 2001 -- a key demand of the White House.

The bill sparked fierce debate between civil liberties advocates who argue it eroded checks on the power of government and intelligence officials who feared the row was compromising their power to thwart terror attacks.

Senators voted 69 to 28 to pass the measure, and defeated several attempts to water down the immunity for telecoms firms.

Bush was expected to make a statement on the passage of the bill at 2000 GMT.

After the September 11 attacks, Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on calls and email between the United States and abroad in cases that federal agents deemed may have a terror link.

The wiretaps went ahead without the permission of a special court set up to watch over government wiretapping operations inside the United States, provided for under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.

The program, revealed in 2005, caused public outcry and opponents argued that US privacy guarantees meant the intelligence agencies should seek court warrants from the FISA court to conduct such spying inside the country.

The standoff between Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House, took on extra political significance after presidential hopeful Barack Obama dropped his opposition to the measure, backing a compromise hammered out in the House of Representatives.

Obama's campaign had said he would support attempts to filibuster the bill during his Democratic primary campaign against Hillary Clinton.

His reversal led to claims that he was ditching previous political positions in a bid to claim the crucial center ground ahead of the general election and Republicans said he would do stop at nothing to get elected.

Even some of Obama's top supporters were dismayed, and started a discussion community on his own website in protest.

Obama addressed the controversy in a blog post on his website.

"This was not an easy call for me. I know that the FISA bill that passed the House is far from perfect," Obama wrote.

"I wouldn't have drafted the legislation like this, and it does not resolve all of the concerns that we have about President Bush's abuse of executive power.

"It grants retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that may have violated the law by cooperating with the Bush Administration's program of warrantless wiretapping."

But Obama said that the bill did provide legal safeguards to bring warrantless wiretaping into the auspices of the courts.

"In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people," he said, but added an independent monitor must watch over that power to protect civil liberties.

"This compromise law assures that the FISA court has that responsibility."

Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday the passage of the FISA bill was a "victory for national security."

"The Senate ensured that our national security officials have the tools they need to help protect our country from future terrorist attacks," he said.

But privacy advocates were dismayed.

"It is an immeasurable tragedy," said Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Bankston said the bill radically expanded "the president's spying powers" and granted "immunity to the companies that colluded in his illegal surveillance program."

Date created : 2008-07-09