Wiretap immunity bill heads to president’s desk

(The Raw Story) The Senate gave President Bush what he wanted Wednesday, sending him a bill expanding his surveillance authority and granting legal amnesty to telecommunications companies that facilitated his warrantless surveillance program. On a 69-28 vote, the Senate approved an administration-backed update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act after striking down amendments to modify its immunity provision. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) voted for the FISA update, while his former primary opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) voted against it. Republican candidate John McCain skipped the FISA vote altogether. Opponents of legal amnesty for telecommunications companies that facilitated President Bush’s extra-legal warrantless wiretapping program were dealt a decisive blow Wednesday, but advocates vowed to challenge the bill in court.

Mystech: Bonus, your Senatorial Sellouts (FISA voting roll) courtesy of Cyberduck.

An amendment sponsored by Sens. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) to strip telecom immunity from an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act failed 32 to 66, although that was more support than the 31 votes a similar amendment received in February. The shift appears to be a result of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) voting in favor of the amendment — she did not vote last time — and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) skipping the vote — he opposed the measure last time.

Immediately after the vote on Feingold and Dodd’s amendment, the Senate voted down another offering from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), which would have let the court decide not to grant immunity if it decides the warrantless spying was unconstitutional. The amendment failed 37-61. Senators then moved to an amendment from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), which would have delayed a decision on immunity until Congress receives reports on the warrantless wiretapping from inspectors general of the agencies involved in the program. That measure failed 42-56.

Obama voted in favor of the Feingold/Dodd and Specter amendments, although he has said he will vote for the final FISA bill even if the immunity provision remains. The Illinois Senator has taken heat from supporters for reneging on an earlier pledge to oppose any FISA update that would grant immunity.

If Obama hoped to avoid criticism from the right by agreeing to support what he said was a vital intelligence-gathering measure, he perhaps underestimated his political opponents. McCain’s campaign released a statement earlier Wednesday echoing criticism from the left.

“A few short months ago, Barack Obama outwardly opposed terrorist surveillance legislation, saying that he would filibuster any bill that includes immunity for American telecommunications companies that had been asked by the government to participate in the program,” said the statement from McCain’s campaign. “Today, the U.S. Senate will approve legislation providing the immunity Barack Obama supposedly opposed, and despite his promise, he will not support a filibuster. What Barack Obama will do is show that he’s willing to change positions, break campaign commitments and undermine his own words in his quest for higher office.”

The Republican National Committee also sent out a release attacking Obama for his position shift. The Republican presidential candidate missed every vote on the FISA bill Wednesday to campaign in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

Feingold, Dodd, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and other opponents of the administration-backed FISA update excoriated their colleagues from the Senate floor. The bill that was headed toward passage, they argued, would eliminate any independent oversight of the National Security Agency’s lawless surveillance of Americans Bush authorized.

“It could not be clearer that this program broke the law, and this President broke the law. Not only that, but this administration affirmatively misled Congress and the American people about it for years before it finally became public,” Feingold said of the warrantless wiretapping program.

Bush said his “Terrorist Surveillance Program” began after 9/11, although no one outside a few members of Congress knew about it until the New York Times revealed the program’s existence in December 2005.

Dodd said the constitutionality and legality of that program was “a matter for the court to decide,” which the grant of immunity would prevent.

Leahy said the immunity would cut off what is perhaps the only remaining avenue for oversight and accountability since the administration has stonewalled congressional inquiries into Bush’s wiretapping program.

“It is clear that the administration did not want the Senate to evaluate the evidence and draw its own conclusions,” Leahy said. “Again, it sought to avoid accountability.”

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