The House approved a compromise bill Friday that would set new electronic surveillance rules that would also shield telecoms from lawsuits arising from their participation in the government's warrantless eavesdropping on telephone and computer lines in the United States.
The government eavesdropped on American phone and computer lines for almost six years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks without permission from the FISA Court, the special panel established for that purpose under the original 1978 law.
Some 40 lawsuits have been filed against the telecommunications companies by groups and individuals who say the Bush administration illegally monitored their phone calls or e-mails.
Obama said there is "little doubt" that the Bush Administration, with the cooperation of major telecommunications companies, "has abused [its] authority and undermined the Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without their knowledge or the required court orders."
"Given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as president, I will carefully monitor the program.
"[The bill] does, however, grant retroactive immunity, and I will work in the Senate to remove this provision so that we can seek full accountability for past offenses."
The House approved the legislation 293-129.
The White House had threatened to veto any surveillance bill that did not also shield the companies.
Critics say granting immunity to telecoms would scrap the pending lawsuits and prevent any public airing of details about the government's surveillance activities.
Last February, when an earlier version of the FISA bill came to a vote, Obama voted for an amendment to strip the telecom immunity provision from the bill. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) voted in favor of keeping immunity for the telecoms.
Speaking in an interview to be aired on Bloomberg television this weekend, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that he may schedule a separate vote on stripping immunity from the bill, although he expressed pessimism about its success.
"Probably we can't take that out of the bill, but I'm going to try," Reid told "Political Capital with Al Hunt."