WASHINGTON – Negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders over giving intelligence agents broader powers to eavesdrop on suspected foreign terrorists broke down Friday night.
House of Representatives Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes said talks were at a standstill after the White House reneged on an earlier offer accepted by Democrats.
Reyes, a Democrat, said the party had agreed to three points that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said the Bush administration needed.
"The DNI subsequently sent us a rewritten piece of legislation that was about 80 percent different. This is a very serious issue for us."
Asked if the negotiations were still ongoing, Reyes said: "No."
President George W. Bush earlier Friday implored lawmakers to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act before leaving Washington for a monthlong summer break — a potentially vulnerable time for attacks because of the high-travel season.
The president threatened to veto any bill by the Democratic-led Congress that his intelligence director deemed unable "to prevent an attack on the country."
"We've worked hard and in good faith with the Democrats to find a solution, but we are not going to put our national security at risk," Bush said after meeting with counterterror and homeland security officials at FBI headquarters. "Time is short."
Democrats said they, too, wanted to help secure the nation by passing the legislation before going on vacation — but not at the expense of crucial privacy rights.
The White House and Senate Democrats, however, still held out hopes for a deal before lawmakers leave this weekend for an August vacation.
The House had already planned to delay the start of lawmakers' August vacation and return Saturday to complete energy and defense spending bills.
Negotiators had spent most of Friday trying to narrow differences between what Bush wanted and Democrats' demand for court approval of any expansion of authority for intelligence agents to tap into phone calls and Internet traffic of suspected terrorists without first obtaining a warrant.
Generally, the law requires court review of government surveillance of suspected terrorists in the United States. It does not specifically address the government's ability to intercept messages believed to come from foreigners overseas — what the White House calls a significant gap in preventing attacks planned abroad.
The Bush administration began pressing for changes to the law after a recent ruling by the special FISA court barred the government from eavesdropping on foreign suspects whose messages were being routed through U.S. communications carriers, including Internet sites.