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White House scores key victory on government eavesdropping

The Senate approved a bill on Wednesday that protects telecom firms from lawsuits over secret surveillance.

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"Lame duck" might not mean "powerless" after all. With only six months left in office, the Bush administration has won a rare legislative victory on a contentious issue: secret government eavesdropping.

The Senate on July 9 passed a final bill overhauling eavesdropping rules. The move marked the effective end of nearly a year of ferocious legislative argument over the extent of government electronic surveillance and the nature of surveillance oversight in the electronic age.

The result is a measure that gives the White House much of what it wants. In particular, it shields from civil lawsuits telecommunications firms that, without court permission, helped the government listen in on the communications of Americans in the months following Sept. 11.

The administration characterizes the measure as fair treatment of patriotic companies. Critics call it a coverup.

"Congress should let the courts do their job instead of helping the administration and the phone companies avoid accountability for a half decade of illegal domestic spying," said Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, earlier this month.

About 40 such lawsuits are currently pending in a federal district court. The White House had said it would veto any eavesdropping bill that did not contain the immunization provision, and Democratic leaders in Congress – worried about being portrayed as soft on national security – eventually included it.

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