WASHINGTON - The Senate late yesterday delayed until next month its consideration of a vote on a new government eavesdropping bill.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) delayed the bill because more than a dozen amendments were planned, with not enough time on the legislative calendar to manage them.
"Everyone feels it would be to the best interests of the Senate that we take a look at this when we come back after the first of the year," he said.
The surveillance bill aims to replace a temporary law Congress hastily passed in August. That law, which expanded the government's authority to listen in on Americans' communications without court permission, expires Feb. 1. The White House expressed disappointment with the delay.
Senators clashed yesterday during hours of debate over whether the need to eavesdrop on potential terrorists outweighs Americans' expectations that their private communications were protected.
The Senate is grappling with how to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which 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 without court permission outside the country.
Most contentious is whether telecommunications companies that helped the government tap domestic communications after Sept. 11, 2001, should be granted immunity from lawsuits stemming from their actions. The surveillance was done without permission from the secret court created under the 1978 law to protect Americans from unwarranted government intrusions on their privacy.
Senate leaders are trying to decide whether to shield the companies from the roughly 40 pending lawsuits alleging violations of communications and wiretapping laws. The White House says that if the cases go forward, they could reveal information that would compromise national security. If they succeed, the companies could be bankrupted.
The companies were helping the Bush administration carry out the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program, a still-classified effort that intercepted communications on U.S. soil without oversight from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from Sept. 11, 2001, to Jan. 17, 2007.
"This program is one of the worst abuses of executive power in our nation's history," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D., Wis.).
Sen. John W. Warner (R., Va.) said he believed the program was legal and "essential to prevent further terrorist attacks against our homeland." The companies helped out of concern for the country's security, he said.
The White House threatened yesterday to veto any bill that lacks a retroactive immunity provision. The Senate intelligence committee's version of the bill contains one; a competing Judiciary Committee version does not. The House recently approved a surveillance bill that does not provide retroactive immunity.