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WASHINGTON - President Bush signed a bill Thursday that overhauls rules about government eavesdropping and grants immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the U.S. spy on Americans in suspected terrorism cases.
He called it "landmark legislation that is vital to the security of our people."
Bush signed the measure in a Rose Garden ceremony a day after the Senate sent it to him, following nearly a year of debate in the Democratic-led Congress over surveillance rules and the warrantless wiretapping program Bush initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It was a battle that pitted privacy and civil liberties concerns against the desire to prevent terrorist attacks and Democrats' fears of being portrayed as weak when it comes to protecting the country.
Its passage was a major victory for Bush, an unpopular lame-duck president who nevertheless has been able to prevail over Congress on most issues of national security and intelligence disputes.
"In the aftermath of 9/11," Bush said, "few would have imagined that we would be standing here seven years later without another attack on American soil. The fact that the terrorists have failed to strike our shores again does not mean that our enemies have given up."
The president said the bill gives the government anti-terror tools it needs without compromising Americans' civil liberties.
"The new law gives the government the power to conduct dragnet surveillance that has no connection to terrorism or criminal activity of any kind," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, in a conference call to reporters.
The bill authorizes U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop without court approval on foreign targets believed to be outside the United States.
The administration says the measure will allow it to swiftly track terrorists. But the suit charges the law permits warrantless surveillance of phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens who may have legal and legitimate reasons for contacting people targeted by government spying.
The bill seeks to minimize such eavesdropping on Americans, but the suit says the safeguards are inadequate.
The law lets government "conduct intrusive surveillance without ever telling a court who it intends to surveil, what phone lines and e-mail addresses it intends to monitor, where its surveillance targets are located, or why it's conducting the surveillance," said ACLU national security director Jameel Jaffer, the lead attorney in the suit.