Senate gives Bush broadened spy powers; House must still act

(dpa) - The US Senate Tuesday gave the White House broadened spy powers, including the authority to carry out secret wiretaps on foreign communications and legal immunity for phone companies that have carried out wiretapping without warrants.

Nineteen Democrats swung to the Republican side for a 68-29 approval of amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that US President George W Bush says are necessary to protect the country from terrorist attacks.

The action came before a temporary six-month law expires Saturday.

In November, the House of Representatives approved a different version of the bill that omitted immunity for the phone companies - a key issue in the bill.

The Senate version protects phone companies from lawsuits by customers who claim it was illegal for telecom firms to hand over data to government investigators without warrants from a secret intelligence court set up decades ago.

The Senate also would let investigators place wiretaps and only then seek review by the secret court as to whether there were abuses that affected Americans.

The two houses must now work out a common version of the bill. Bush is pushing for an agreement before Saturday.

Critics fear the law gives the government unprecedented powers to spy on Americans without a court order.

The Senate's majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid, charged that Bush had bullied some Democrats into submission with a "false choice between security and liberty."

"I reject that choice. This is America. We can and must have both," Reid said.

Bush praised passage of the bill, saying it would close "dangerous intelligence gaps that threatened our security."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino earlier Tuesday defended the actions of telephone companies which cooperated with government investigators in turning over data after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

"The telephone companies that were alleged to have helped their country after 9/11 did so because they are patriotic and they certainly helped us and they helped to save lives," Perino said.

National security is figuring as a top issue in the 2008 US presidential campaign.

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