US lawmakers pass telecom immunity, eavesdropping rules

The US Senate approved and sent to the White House a bill overhauling controversial rules on secret government eavesdropping, an Associated Pres report said.

The relatively one-sided vote, 69-28, came only after a lengthy and bitter debate that pitted privacy and civil liberties concerns against the desire to prevent terrorist attacks, the report said.

It ended almost a year of wrangling over surveillance rules and the president's warrantless wiretapping program that was initiated after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Associated Press report said.

The House passed the same bill last month, and President Bush is expected to sign it soon.

The long fight on Capitol Hill centered on one main question: whether to shield from civil lawsuits any telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on American phone and computer lines without the permission or knowledge of a secret court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The White House had threatened to veto the bill unless it immunized companies such as AT&T and Verizon Communications from wiretapping lawsuits. About 40 such lawsuits have been filed, and all are pending before a single US District court.