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WASHINGTON - The Senate approved a controversial terrorist surveillance bill Wednesday, which provides retroactive immunity for phone companies that participated in President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.
The 69-28 vote was a major victory for Bush and his congressional allies - including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch - who have fought for more than a year to keep the immunity provisions intact and to provide increased flexibility to listen in on the conversations of suspected terrorists.
Both presumptive presidential nominees, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, also backed the extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, which now goes to the president for his signature. But Obama's support has become far more contentious than that of McCain, who was not present for the vote.
Many of Obama's supporters vehemently oppose legal immunity for telecommunication companies in part because they hoped the court fight would prove the program violated the law. Obama previously opposed the bill and he remains opposed to the immunity provision, but he voted for the measure because of the surveillance rules.
Hatch, one of the most prominent supporters of FISA, took to the Senate floor Wednesday to defend the the phone companies, calling them "patriotic" for volunteering to participate in the surveillance program following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He also denounced the more than 40 lawsuits now filed against companies such as AT&T and Verizon as frivolous attempts to financially benefit from the controversy.
"Any company who assisted us following the attacks of 9/11 deserves a round of applause and a helping hand, not a slap in the face and a kick to the gut," said Hatch, a longtime member of the Senate's judiciary and intelligence communities.
The bill, which will now go to President Bush for his signature, is the first major revamping of the bill since it was first passed in the late 1970s. The new version will remain in effect until 2012.
The original FISA bill created a secret court to sign off on sensitive wiretaps and search warrants. After Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks President Bush authorized the intelligence community to bypass the court to spy on suspected terrorists and asked telecommunication companies to help.
The new bill incorporates Bush's program, while adding more civil liberty protections for American citizens. But that doesn't satisfy some Democrats, such as Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold.
He complains the FISA bill gives the government blanket authority to monitor communications involving Americans and the rest of the world.
He also believe the bill includes "a gaping loophole" that allows the government to bypass the need for a warrant in special cases, where the time it took to get court approval may impede an investigation. In these cases, the government would have to inform the court within a week.
And Feingold said the legislation failed to include any penalties for violating the law.
"There are no consequences for illegal behavior by the government of the United States and that is just wrong," he said Wednesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which shares the same concerns as Feingold, promised to file a legal challenge to the bill immediately after Bush signs it into law.
"With today's vote, the government has been given a green light to expand its power to spy on Americans and run roughshod over the Constitution," said Anthony Romero, ACLU Executive Director.
Hatch dismissed opponents like Feingold and the ACLU as conspiracy theorists, saying they "should join the black helicopter crowd and wear tinfoil hats. I think they would be in greater company."
He also ridiculed people who worry that the government would use the new FISA law to eavesdrop on Americans.
"I don't want to bruise anyone's ego but if al-Qaida is not on your speed dial the government is probably not interested in you," Hatch said.
He says the bill goes to far to appease civil libertarians. And Hatch, for one, hopes the government uses the special case provision "early and often" to avoid the need to get a warrant.
"If the war on terror is not an exigent circumstance, I don't know what is," he said.
* Requires an inspector general investigation of the legality of President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.
* Requires the government to get the approval of the FISA court to spy on an American overseas. Now, the attorney general has the authority to approve such eavesdropping.
* Allows the government to conduct expansive 12 month investigations of foreign groups, which critics worry could involve the communications of innocent Americans.
* Allows the government to conduct a wiretap in "exigent circumstances" for a week before it must request a court order. Previously, the government had three days.
* The bill reaffirms that FISA is the only law by which the government can wiretap for intelligence purposes inside the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this summary