WASHINGTON – Vice President Dick Cheney prodded Congress on Wednesday to extend and broaden an expiring surveillance law, saying "fighting the war on terror is a long-term enterprise" that should not come with an expiration date.
"We're reminding Congress that they must act now," Cheney told the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The law, which authorizes the administration to eavesdrop on phone calls and see the e-mail to and from suspected terrorists, expires on Feb. 1. Congress is bickering over terms of its extension.
On Tuesday, Senate Republicans blocked an effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to extend the stopgap Protect America Act without expanding it, raising stakes for an expected showdown in the Senate later this week on a new version of the law.
"This cause is bigger than the quarrels of party and the agendas of politicians," Cheney said. "And if we in Washington, all of us, can only see our way clear to work together, then the outcome should not be in doubt."
Congress hastily adopted the stopgap act last summer in the face of warnings from the administration about dangerous gaps in the government's ability to gather intelligence in the Internet age.
Administration allies in Congress not only want the expiring law made permanent but amended to give telephone companies and other communications providers immunity from being sued for helping the government eavesdropping and other intelligence-gathering efforts.
Cheney said such providers "face dozens of lawsuits."
"The intelligence community doesn't have the facilities to carry out the kind of international surveillance needed to defend this country since 9-11. In some situations, there is no alternative to seeking assistance from the private sector. This is entirely appropriate," Cheney said.
At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino defended the proposal to protect phone companies from liability. "These are companies who helped their country right after 9-11," she said. She also criticized Democratic plans for a one-month extension of the current law. "Look, there's been six months to hash out the differences. Actually, there's been a whole year-and-a-half worth ... And there was robust debate, a hearty debate back in August when we got the bill that we have now."
At the heart of the controversy is whether the government's wireless surveillance program violated provisions of the original FISA law that requires warrants for wiretaps whenever one of the parties involved in the communication resides in the United States.
Cheney also said the administration "feels strongly that an updated FISA law should be made permanent, not merely extended again. ... There is no sound reason to pass critical legislation like the Protect America Act and slap an expiration date on it."
Reid plans to bring to the Senate floor on Thursday competing versions of the legislation.
If a bill is not approved then, Reid said he would require the Senate to work through the weekend to get a bill passed.
The original FISA law requires the government to get permission from a special court to listen in on the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States. Changes in communications technology mean many purely foreign to foreign communications now pass through the United States and therefore require the government to get court orders to intercept them.
The Protect America Act, adopted in August, eased that restriction. Privacy and civil liberties advocates say it went too far, giving the government far more power to eavesdrop on American communications without court oversight.