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1/24/2008
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White House Wants Immunity For Electronic Surveillance

Democrats oppose the bill, which aims to give liability protection for telecom companies that participate in terrorist surveillance.

The White House is pushing hard to ensure liability protection for telecommunications companies that help federal investigators through surveillance.

In a news release this week, the White House said "liability protection is critical to the ongoing effort to protect the nation from another catastrophic attack." Democratic opposition could stall the plan.

The announcement supports a Senate Intelligence Committee bill to extend provisions in the Protect America Act, which is set to expire next week. White House spokesperson Dana Perino pointed to the committee's conclusion that, without liability protection, "the private sector might be unwilling to cooperate with lawful government requests," potentially reducing the amount of intelligence investigators can gather and risking national security.

The bill would not prohibit lawsuits against the government or provide immunity from criminal prosecution, Perino said. It would not require companies to verify that government requests are legal, something Democrats support.

"Such an impossible requirement would hurt our ability to keep the nation safe," Perino said in a paper outlining the White House position on the bill.

The statement said that companies should be protected from "costly litigation for helping protect our country and classified information should also be protected from disclosure through lawsuits."

"Failing to provide such protection sends an unfortunate message to every private party that may in the future consider whether to help the nation," Perino said.

Democrats oppose the bill and the House of Representatives is calling for a month-long extension of the Protect America Act to allow both sides to hash out their differences.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, spoke on the Senate floor to voice support of two possible amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The amendments would require court approval for electronic surveillance and force telecommunications companies to justify their participation in terrorist surveillance.

"If the companies can show that they were acting based on legal government certification or in good faith, or that they did not provide the alleged assistance, then immunity would be granted," Feinstein explained. "If they cannot make such a showing, then immunity would not be granted."

One amendment that Feinstein supports would declare FISA the sole authority on electronic surveillance.

"The President does not have the right to collect the content of Americans' communications without obeying the governing law -- and that law is FISA," Feinstein said. "Let there be no doubt: FISA has been -- and continues to be -- the exclusive means for electronic surveillance in this country. This amendment simply reaffirms and strengthens the existing law."

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