The cover-up is nearly complete. With congressional approval, the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping on Americans' overseas phone calls and e-mail for nearly six years will be spared the third-degree treatment by any judge or jury.

At the same time, Bush or his successor would have virtual free rein to continue the massive antiterror surveillance sweeps of communications to and from this country.

Whatever the risk from another terror attack, Americans' privacy would be the assured casualty from these antiterror tactics.

While a secret federal court would have the power to deny warrants, a gaping loophole exists in the new surveillance law approved Friday by the House. Agents would be able to eavesdrop without a warrant in weekly installments. That's a pretty big asterisk on the Fourth Amendment's constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Indeed, Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) said the new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act offered no safeguard against future lawless spying.

It is important to renew the surveillance law before standing warrants expire this summer, but this is not the way to do it.

Congressional Democrats caved to Bush's insistence that the measure shield telecommunications companies from more than 40 privacy lawsuits stemming from the post-9/11 warrantless spying.

Those lawsuits would be tossed now under a FISA provision that merely requires the companies to produce paperwork showing the Bush White House ordered their cooperation. That's as close to blanket immunity as it gets.

The value in pursuing the civil suits was not to punish companies that cooperated in time of national emergency. In fact, the firms should have been shielded from crippling damages.

However, the lawsuits offered the best means to plumb what occurred during the spy program. That avenue would be blocked now, and it's doubtful that reviews ordered by several agencies' inspectors general will provide a better public accounting.

It's incredible to hear Democrats try to justify their capitulation on grounds that they forced Bush to accept an additional $95 billion worth of domestic spending. Unemployment insurance and higher-education benefits for veterans, great stuff. But since when is it right to horse-trade over the cherished, constitutional right to privacy?

There's still time for the Senate to stand up for the Constitution and reject this deal.