Page last updated at 21:03 GMT, Thursday, 10 July 2008 22:03 UK

Bush approves surveillance bill

George W Bush signs into law the bill granting telephone companies immunity
President Bush said the new law "will play a critical role"

US President George W Bush has approved a bill to shield telephone companies who helped in the White House's controversial wiretaps programme.

The bill also grants the US government the power to continue with the telephone surveillance scheme.

The White House faced criticism when it emerged it was monitoring - without warrants - communications in the US involving one participant abroad.

The bill had previously been passed by both houses of Congress.

'Respecting liberties'

Signing the bill into law, President Bush said it "will play a critical role in helping to prevent another attack on our soil".

"The bill will allow our intelligence professionals to quickly and effectively monitor the communications of terrorists abroad while respecting the liberties of Americans here at home," he added.

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama voted in favour of the measure when it came before the Senate on Wednesday.

His decision to back the bill drew criticism from some of his supporters, who pointed to past statements in which Mr Obama had pledged to block any bill which granted immunity to telecommunication companies.

Man speaking on mobile phone

"I wouldn't have drafted the legislation like this," said Mr Obama, in a statement on his website.

However, he added, "in a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people".

The bill was passed in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support last month, after House Democrats reached a compromise with Republicans over the provisions to grant telecommunications companies immunity from prosecution.

Telephone companies were facing as many as 40 lawsuits for their involvement in the scheme.

Previous attempts to pass the bill - and allow the warrantless wiretap scheme to continue - had foundered on the issue of immunity for telecom firms.

Democrats had been reluctant to grant the firms immunity, saying the courts should first determine what the companies did.

President Bush - backed by Republicans in Congress - wanted to ensure that firms which had helped his administration would not be liable for prosecution.

The two sides reached a compromise, whereby telephone companies would not be automatically immune, but courts would be obliged to dismiss a suit against a firm if it was able to produce written certification that the White House had asked it to participate in the programme and had assured the firm it was legal.

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