On Obama's vote, and a telling picture:
The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to grant retroactive amnesty to the telecoms that aided the President Bush's five-year secret, warrantless wiretapping of Americans, and to expand the government's authority to sift through U.S. communications, handing a key victory to the Bush administration.
The Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama (D-Illinois) voted for the final bill, despite intense lobbying by supporters who used Obama's own online organizing technology to try to hold him to his promise to fight any bill that included amnesty. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's former rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, voted against the bill.
The 68 to 29 vote puts an end to more than a year of debate over whether the government should be able to collect millions of e-mails and phone calls daily from U.S.-based communication switches without any probable cause. It also answers whether Congress believes the nation's telecoms and president had a duty to follow the rules set out in 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was passed after the abuses of the 1950s and 60s.
If the FISA Amendments Act survives constitutional challenge, it dooms the dozens of anti-wiretapping lawsuits filed against the nation's telecoms, by ordering the judge in charge of the cases to dismiss them if the telecoms can prove the government asked them to help out.
Those suits seek billions in damages for alleged massive violations of communication privacy laws, and seek to prevent companies from participating again in the future without proper court orders.
Congress's wiretapping debate started in earnest last spring after the nation's secret spying court struck down a version of the president's secret surveillance program. That led Bush and his surrogates in the Justice Department and intelligence community to push Congress to grant it powers that the administration claimed for itself, until it was forced to submit the secret wiretapping program to a court in January 2007.
Senator Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, who nearly single-handedly derailed a vote on a similar bill in December, took the floor one last time Wednesday morning, imploring his fellow senators to let the courts continue without interference. He also offered hope to immunity foes by predicting of the measure will be struck down in court.
"Opponents of retroactive immunity can take solace in knowing that it will still ultimately be the judiciary that decides whether any of this would have passed muster with the framers," Dodd said. "I can hardly see how it would have."
Senator Kit Bond (R-Missouri), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, argued that the bill has plenty of court oversight, and that the nation's telecoms shouldn't be punished for coming to the aid of the country.
"It is unfair to use telecoms as the punching bag to get at the administration," Bond said, arguing that anti-wiretapping suits should be filed against the government, not the telecoms. Bond failed to note the significant legal hurdles to suing the government, including the need to prove standing and overcome sovereign immunity privileges.
The amnesty debate spilled over into the presidential campaign of 2008, after McCain's campaign temporarily appeared to grow tougher on the nation's telecoms.
For his part, Obama sparked a grassroots rebellion among his supporters in the last two weeks for backing off a promise to vote against any bill that contained amnesty for telephone and internet companies that gave the government access to customer records and communications with valid court orders.
An amendment sponsored by Dodd to strip immunity from the bill failed by a vote of 32 to 66, a tally nearly identical to a vote on a similar amendment in February that failed 31 to 67. The Senate also voted down an amendment from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) that would have paused both the lawsuits and the amnesty provisions until after a Inspectors General report to Congress revealed what exactly happened.
Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) stressed that Congress was violating the separation of powers by interfering with the courts.
"This may be a historical embarrassment," Specter said Wednesday morning on the Senate floor. "Everyone knows we don't know what the program did, but here we are giving immunity to the telephone companies."
President Bush is expected to quickly sign the bill -- which was passed by the House in June.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco non-profit rights groups at the center of the lawsuits against the telecoms, plans to challenge the legality of the amnesty provision, arguing that Congress overstepped its authority by messing with the courts.
Despite the landslide loss, the ACLU's Caroline Fredrickson took solace in the fact that the fight took so long, and that individuals around the country organized around an issue that many said was too esoteric.
"I think that says something," Fredrickson said. "Even though we lost at the end of the day, there has been a re-awakening in the American public of a feeling that while we are fighting the so-called 'War on Terror,' we need to protect our civil liberties and the separation of powers."