Senate OKs wider powers of surveillance

The Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a major expansion of the government's surveillance powers, handing President Bush one more victory in a series of hard-fought clashes with Democrats over national security issues.

The measure, approved 69-28, marks the biggest restructuring of federal surveillance law in 30 years. It includes a divisive element that Bush had deemed essential: legal immunity for the phone companies that cooperated in the National Security Agency wiretapping program he approved after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The vote came 21/2 years after public disclosure of the wiretapping program set off a fierce national debate over the balance between protecting the country from another terrorist strike and ensuring civil liberties. The final outcome in Congress, which opponents of the surveillance measure had conceded for weeks, seemed almost anticlimactic in contrast.

All four senators from the Carolinas voted for the bill.

Bush, appearing in the Rose Garden just after his return from Japan, called the vote “long overdue.”

He promised to quickly sign the measure into law, saying it is critical to national security and shows that “even in an election year, we can come together and get important pieces of legislation passed.”

Even as his political stature has waned, Bush has managed to maintain his dominance on national security issues over a Democratic-led Congress. He has beat back efforts to cut troops and financing in Iraq, and he has won important victories on issues like interrogation tactics and military tribunals in the fight against terrorism.

Debate over the surveillance law was the one area where Democrats had held firm in opposition. House Democrats went so far as to allow a temporary surveillance measure to expire in February, leading to a five-month impasse and prompting charges from Bush that the nation's defenses against another strike by al-Qaida had been weakened.

But in the end Bush won out, as administration officials helped forge a deal between Republican and Democratic leaders that included almost all the major elements the White House wanted. The measure gives the executive branch broader latitude in eavesdropping on people abroad and at home who it believes are tied to terrorism, and it reduces the role of a secret intelligence court in overseeing some operations.

Supporters maintained that the plan includes enough safeguards to protect Americans' civil liberties, including reviews by several inspectors general. There is nothing to fear in the bill, said Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., a lead negotiator, “unless you have al-Qaida on your speed dial.”