The United States Senate approves a bill extending electronic surveillance of foreign terrorist suspects and protecting telecommunications companies from liability for monitoring phone calls and e-mails at the request of the government. The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 allows the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to authorize surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence. The bill allows for judicial review of such actions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review.
Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) – Senate sponsor of the effort – worked with his Democratic counterpart on the Intelligence Committee, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), as well as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) and the ranking members of the House Intelligence Committee to reach compromise on the bill.
The most controversial part of the bill was the provision granting immunity to telecommunication companies who provided phone and email information to the federal government in the wake of September 11th. Senate opponents such as Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT) criticized this aspect of the legislation, saying Congress is taking away the ability for federal courts to rule on lawsuits brought against the telecommunications companies. Senator Bond and supporters of the bill argued the bill still allows for lawsuits to be brought against the government and government officials.
Senators also argued over whether the bill allows eavesdropping on innocent Americans. Opponents of the bill argued the bill allowed for such abuses while supporters said adequate protections were in place to make sure the government is monitoring communications of suspected terrorists.
The bill also allows for emergency physical searches authorized by the Attorney General, though a judicial order must be sought within 7 days of the authorization. The Attorney General must also report to congressional committees every six months on the status on the programs in the bill.
Three amendments trying to limit the scope of the legislation were defeated. The bill passed 69-28 and has already been approved in the House. Senators Bond and McCaskill supported the bill.