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This will be known as the year the government tried to legitimize its warrantless spying program. The once-secret National Security Agency program that since 2001 used U.S. phone companies to tap into the communications of terrorism suspects on U.S. soil without a judge’s signature was facing increasing pressure from a Democratic Congress and dozens of lawsuits. In early January, President George W. Bush unexpectedly submitted the controversial program to oversight by the court that presides over wiretap requests. But the judicial scrutiny led to court orders curbing the government’s ability to bypass the court. The administration then argued that in order to keep Americans safe, the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act needed to be reformed and the government’s authority to monitor communications expanded. The Justice Department and the NSA launched a public relations campaign to persuade Congress to amend the law to allow warrantless eavesdropping on persons abroad, even if those calls or e-mails passed through U.S. phone facilities. In August, Congress hastily approved a temporary fix, giving the administration almost everything it sought but only for six months. The battle over permanent changes since then has turned on one pending request: legal immunity for the telecom companies that aided the government’s secret spying efforts. Several of the largest telecoms � Verizon, AT&T, and Bell South � are the focus of about 40 lawsuits, some of them class actions, claiming that their cooperation broke the law. In April, a former AT&T technician disclosed the extent of the collaboration, noting how the NSA set up shop in the company’s San Francisco office to monitor and intercept all international and domestic calls as well as Internet traffic. The immunity question has sharply divided Congress mostly along party lines, but even some Democrats have split on the issue. On Dec. 17, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) shelved a measure granting retroactive immunity amid mounting opposition and instead pledged to take up the bill when Congress reconvenes in January.
Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be contacted at [email protected].

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