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Senators offered chance to see documents on Bush’s eavesdropping program

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Posted: October 25, 2007 5:23 p.m.
Updated: November 9, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    WASHINGTON — The White House offered Thursday to let the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee view classified documents that they have demanded on President Bush’s eavesdropping program.
    The offer was an attempt to speed progress on legislation that would legalize the program.
    White House legal counsel Fred Fielding offered to let the committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, and the top Republican, Arlen Specter, see documents that might persuade them to include liability protection for telephone companies in a broader rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
    But Leahy, D-Vt., wants all committee members have access to the documents before he considers giving immunity to telecommunications companies that may have tapped Americans’ telephones and computers without court approval, his spokeswoman said.
    The committee’s endorsement of the immunity plan is needed for the broader legislation to move forward. Bush has threatened to veto the legislation unless it includes the liability protection.
    Some senators on the committee refuse to consider the matter without seeing the classified documents.
    ‘‘Immunity suggests that there’s been a violation of the law and they want to be absolved from any liability,’’ Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters. ‘‘I would like to know what happened before I absolve anyone from liability.’’
    Talks involving Leahy, Specter, R-Pa., and the White House continued, officials said.
    Leahy and Specter complained this week that the White House had left them out when it shared some documents on the program with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which approved the provision last week.
    The bill faces other problems. It ran aground in the House last week in a partisan dispute over the immunity issue and the broader question of how much oversight power the courts should have over surveillance.
    The Senate bill would direct courts to dismiss lawsuits against telecommunications companies if the attorney general certified that a company gave assistance between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 17, 2007, in response to a written request authorized by the president, in trying to detect or prevent an attack on the United States.
    Suits also would be dismissed if the attorney general certified that a company named in a case provided no assistance to the government.
    The public record would not reflect which certification was given to the court.
    The Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said any warrantless wiretapping conducted before the Sept. 11 attacks would not be covered by the immunity provision of the bill.
    Exactly what electronic surveillance the Bush administration has conducted inside the U.S. is classified.
    Under current rules, the government can monitor Americans’ phone and computer lines outside the country if the attorney general certifies that the American is believed to be an agent of a foreign power. The new bill would require the government to get a court order to eavesdrop on Americans wherever they are in the world.

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