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Updated: State’s senators split over wiretapping bill

Minnesota’s senators split their votes Wednesday on the wiretapping bill which grants President Bush’s wish to expand the government’s surveillance powers. Read more…
By Sharon Schmickle

Minnesota’s senators split their votes Wednesday on the wiretapping bill which grants President Bush’s wish to expand the government’s surveillance powers.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar stood with a group of Democrats who rejected the final version of the hard-fought bill. Still, the White House and congressional leaders secured enough votes to pass the bill on a 69-28 vote.

Despite repeated requests, Klobuchar’s spokesman did not explain why she voted to cut off debate on the bill in June — clearing its way to almost certain final passage — and then voted against it Wednesday.

After this post appeared, Klobuchar issued this statement: “Although improvements were made to the original version of the Senate bill, yesterday’s final legislation still contains provisions that would inevitably provide retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies who were complicit in the Administration’s illegal wiretapping program.  I joined with Senators [Christopher] Dodd and [Russ] Feingold in their attempts to craft a stronger bill that would have provided our intelligence agencies with the tools they need to fight terrorist groups, while still providing the appropriate oversight and safeguards to protect the Constitutional civil liberties of all Americans. After their efforts fell short, I could not support the final FISA legislation.”

There had been no suspense over Norm Coleman’s vote. He supported the bill, as did every other Republican in the Senate.

“For the past several months, our nation’s ability to gather intelligence regarding terrorist activity has been hampered due to the failure to pass the bill through Congress,” Coleman’s press secretary, LeRoy Coleman, said in advance of the vote. “Passage of this bill is critically important, as it will allow our intelligence community to acquire the information they need to keep our country secure while protecting civil liberties.”

Democrats who voted for the bill included Barack Obama of Illinois, the party’s presumed presidential nominee. Several groups within the party had pressured him to reject the bill which hands Bush a major victory on a controversial national security issue.

Obama issued a statement in advance of the vote, saying, “In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people. But in a free society, that authority cannot be unlimited.”

The compromise, he said, sets up several checks against abuse of the authority in surveillance on Americans.

In a nod to the vigorous opponents of the bill, Obama said, “your organizing, your activism and your passion is an important reason why this bill is better than previous versions.”

John McCain of Arizona, the presumed GOP nominee, missed the vote while campaigning in Ohio.  

The House passed the same bill last month, and Bush promised to sign the measure, which The New York Times called “the biggest revamping of federal surveillance law in 30 years.”

The bill grants legal immunity for the phone companies that cooperated in the National Security Agency’s now-defunct wiretapping program, which Bush approved after the Sept. 11 attacks. More than 40 lawsuits had been filed charging the companies with violating privacy and conducting illegal wiretaps. The bill effectively ends those suits by allowing courts to dismiss them if the companies can show that they were acting under formal requests from the Bush administration.

It also gives the executive branch broader latitude in eavesdropping on people abroad and at home who it believes are tied to terrorism. Among other provisions, it expands to seven days, from three, the period for warrantless wiretaps on Americans if the government has probable cause to believe the target is linked to terrorism.

Like Obama, supporters maintained that the compromise bill includes safeguards to protect Americans’ civil liberties, including reviews by several inspectors general.

There is nothing to fear in the bill, “unless you have Al Qaeda on your speed dial,” Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Missouri, told the Times.

But many Democratic opponents saw the deal as capitulation to White House pressure. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was among the critics who insisted the bill let the White House off the hook for sidestepping the previous law in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“This president broke the law,” Feingold said shortly before the vote. “Not only that, but this administration affirmatively misled Congress and the American people about it for years before it finally became public . . . I urge my colleagues to stand up for the rule of law and defeat this bill.”

But many other Democrats were wary of handing the Republicans a potent political weapon in the countdown to the November election, the Times said. Wiretapping orders approved under the previous surveillance law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, were set to begin expiring in August unless Congress acted.