US Democrats vote to curb Bush's warrantless spying

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WASHINGTON, Nov 16 (Reuters) Defying President George W Bush, the US House of Representatives voted to protect the privacy of Americans in his anti-terror spying program and refused to shield phone companies from lawsuits.

The vote in the Democratic-led House was 227-189. Lawmakers voted largely along party lines.

The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration. If it passes both chambers, the White House has threatened to veto the measure, warning it would hamper electronic spying efforts, subjecting the United States to increased risks.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino yesterday said the bill ''fails to give our intelligence community the tools it needs, and it fails to protect companies facing massive lawsuits for allegedly stepping up and answering the nation's call for help after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.'' She said Bush would veto such a bill.

House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer defended the measure, saying, ''This legislation gives our intelligence community the tools it needs to listen in on those who seek to harm us while addressing concerns that (a Bush-backed) bill passed in August could authorize warrantless surveillance of Americans.'' Democrats rejected Bush's demand for retroactive immunity for any telecommunications company that may have taken part in the warrantless domestic spying program begun after the September.

11 attacks on the United States in 2001.

Nearly 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T, Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating Americans' privacy rights in helping the government's warrantless domestic spying program.

Opponents said it would be irresponsible to grant protection for telecommunications companies until it was determined if they violated any laws.

Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, opposed the bill, saying, ''We are at war with terrorists who spend every day plotting attacks to kill Americans. Our intelligence community needs effective tools to detect and disrupt such attacks.'' The White House said it was prepared to work with Congress on a possible compromise bill that ''would strengthen the nation's intelligence capabilities while respecting the constitutional rights of Americans.'' FINAL PASSAGE UNCERTAIN It was uncertain when or if any such bill would win final congressional passage.

The Senate Intelligence Committee passed a bill last month to tighten eavesdropping laws while providing the retroactive immunity for telecommunications firms demanded by Bush.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a version of its own -- with no immunity. The matter is certain to be fought out in the full Senate where some lawmakers have suggested the government be held liable.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requires that the government receive the approval of a secret FISA court to conduct surveillance in the United States of suspected foreign enemy targets.

Shortly after the September. 11 attacks, Bush secretly authorized warrantless surveillance of communications between people in the United States and others overseas if one had suspected ties to terrorists.

Critics charged that program violated FISA. But Bush argued he had the wartime power to do it. He put the program under FISA supervision in January, yet terms remain secret.

In August, Congress bowed to the administration demands and expanded the government's power to conduct surveillance without a court order.

The measure authorized the National Security Agency to intercept, without a court order, communications between people in the United States and foreign targets overseas.

The House bill would provide new safeguards.

It would require, for instance, court approval to listen in on foreign suspects making calls into the United States. In such cases, the government would be allowed -- without a court warrant -- to eavesdrop on Americans on the other end of the line.

A warrant would be needed only if the American was a target.

REUTERS SG RK1001

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