RealTime IT News

House OKs Spy Bill, Rejects Telco Immunity

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives defied President George W. Bush on Friday and passed an anti-terrorism spy bill that permits lawsuits against phone companies.

But the 213-197 vote was far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a promised veto by Bush. He has demanded that any telecommunication company that participated in his warrantless domestic spying program secretly begun after the September 11 attacks receive retroactive immunity.

The battle over whether to shield companies has been a key reason why the House and Senate have been unable to agree on a bill to replace a law that expired last month that expanded U.S. authority to track enemy targets without a court order.

It has also prompted Republicans to accuse Democrats of undermining national security while Democrats have accused Bush and his fellow Republicans of election-year fear mongering.

"It is time to reject the scare tactics of the Bush administration and enact this carefully crafted legislation," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.

But Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, warned that without immunity telecommunication companies may stop helping defend the United States.

"Ninety-eight percent of America's communications technology is owned by private sector companies," Smith said. "We cannot conduct foreign surveillance without them."

About 40 lawsuits have accused AT&T, Verizon Communications and Sprint Nextel of violating the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans swept up in the electronic surveillance of phone calls and e-mails. Damages could total in the billions of dollars.