US House approves surveillance bill without telecom immunity

[JURIST] The US House of Representatives passed the RESTORE Act of 2007 ("Responsible Electronic Surveillance That is Overseen, Reviewed and Effective Act of 2007") [HR 3773 materials] by a margin of 227-187 [roll call] late Thursday without including a provision that would grant immunity to telecommunication companies [JURIST report] that aided the US government in its domestic surveillance program [JURIST news archive]. The House Judiciary and Intelligence committees advanced [JURIST report] the bill to the House floor last month. If the legislation passes in the Senate, the RESTORE Act would replace the temporary Protect America Act [S 1927 materials], signed [JURIST report] in August, as the law governing foreign surveillance. It permits eavesdropping on foreign targets operating outside the US, but if the surveillance targets are thought to be communicating with Americans, the government must apply for an "umbrella" court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) [official backgrounder] to conduct surveillance for up to one year. In an emergency, the government may begin surveillance immediately and apply for a FISC court order within seven days.

The White House on Thursday confirmed President George Bush's intent to veto the bill [SAP, PDF] without an immunity provision for telecommunications companies:

H.R. 3773 is deficient in several particular aspects:...

Fails to Provide Retroactive Liability Protection for Companies Alleged to Have Assisted the Government in the Wake of the September 11 Terrorist Attacks. The Administration strongly opposes H.R. 3773 because it fails to grant liability protection to companies alleged to have assisted the Government's counterterrorism efforts in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. It is a matter of basic fairness that providers who are alleged to have provided assistance to the Government in the wake of these terrorist attacks should not face liability claims. It also is critical to our national security that such companies be protected from litigation, since companies that face lawsuits for allegedly assisting the Government may be unwilling to provide assistance if and when it is needed to prevent future terrorist attacks.
Other criticisms the White House had of HR 3773 were that it limits the type of foreign intelligence information that can be acquired, "creates unnecessary obstacles to collection against foreign intelligence target located outside" the US, "does not provide certainty" for US intelligence agents, "imposes inappropriate and burdensome oversight provisions," and that it "unnecessarily raises highly complex legal questions."

The Senate Judiciary Committee this week considered whether to include the immunity provision [JURIST report] in the Senate version of the bill, and ultimately decided to leave the immunity language in the Senate bill [S 2248 materials], allowing the full Senate to debate the provision. Earlier this month, former US Attorney General John Ashcroft urged Congress [JURIST report] to include the blanket immunity provision in the RESTORE Act in a New York Times op-ed. AP has more.


 

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