WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has allowed House intelligence and judiciary committee members to see for the first time secret NSA documents in an effort to sway lawmakers toward the White House's position on a fix for an expiring surveillance law.
A senior administration official tells FOX News that the lawmakers were allowed to view NSA certifications sent to telecommunications companies requesting customers' telephone numbers. The requests followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and were updated every 30 to 45 days for about five years until the secret agreement between the government and the telecoms and the administration's Terror Surveillance Program was leaked to the media.
Also included in the set of documents shown to the congressional committees were legal opinions from the Justice Department and the president's authorization of the program.
All of this is an attempt to convince House members to back a revision to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A stop-gap fix that Congress passed last summer — known as the Protect America Act — is set to expire Feb. 1.
The law, first enacted in 1978, dictates when federal agents must obtain court permission before tapping phone and computer lines inside the United States to gather intelligence on foreign threats. Agents may tap lines outside the country without court oversight.
The White House is seeking immunity from lawsuits for the telecoms, which are facing dozens of legal actions claiming privacy and other violations. Officials want to not only prevent the companies from being sued after the law is passed, but be immune from all past lawsuits, too.
The Senate on Thursday signaled support for granting legal immunity, a sign that the contentious provision may be headed for approval next week. But further action on the legislation was delayed until Monday, pushing Congress closer to a Feb. 1 deadline for enacting a new law.
If a new law is not signed by the president by then, some eavesdropping practices that are now legal would be prohibited.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and senior Republican Pete Hoekstra of Michigan in May requested the documents that now are being reviewed. House Democrats have said they will not support telecom immunity without seeing the papers first. Some senators were given access to the documents last fall.
House Intelligence and Judiciary committee members and staff were to begin reading the documents at the White House on Thursday. The White House is only granting access to 19 House Judiciary committee members, mirroring the number of Senate Judiciary Committee members who also got to see the documents.
Senators first were given access to these documents months ago. Sens. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have said that after seeing these documents, they decided to support the administration's request for retroactive legal immunity for the telecoms against a waive of civil lawsuits.
The Senate is set to pass a revised FISA bill early next week. The House has been a major hurdle for the administration, as a majority of members oppose attempts to provide the immunity. Because of delays in that House, the FISA update is not expected to pass before the Protect America Act expires.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has asked the administration to support a one-month extension of the PAA. So far, the administration and Senate Republicans have rebuffed his request.
The Senate on Thursday rejected an attempt to expand a secret court's oversight of government eavesdropping, sticking instead with a surveillance bill favored by the White House.
The bill, which failed 60-36, would have strengthened the oversight powers of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — which is governed by FISA. The bill would have given the court the authority to monitor and enforce how the government protects the identities of innocent Americans whose communications may be inadvertently collected.
This is the second time the Senate has taken up the FISA modernization bill. Reid, D-Nev., abruptly closed debate in December when it became clear the Senate couldn't finish work before the holiday break.
If a new law is not passed by Feb. 1, some eavesdropping practices that are now legal would be prohibited. Most vexing to the intelligence agencies, the government would have to get court orders to listen in on all communications that pass through U.S. telecommunications switches and computer servers, even those that are between people outside the country.
Retroactive legal immunity for telecommunications companies is the most contentious issue. The Senate is expected to vote this week on whether to shield the companies from the roughly 40 pending civil lawsuits alleging violations of communications and wiretapping laws. The White House says if the cases go forward they could reveal information that would compromise national security. It also contends that the companies could be bankrupted if the lawsuits are successful.
The companies were helping the administration carry out the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program, a still-classified effort that intercepted communications on U.S. soil without oversight from the FISA court from Sept. 11, 2001, to Jan. 17, 2007.
President Bush pushed Thursday for congressional Democrats to extend the government's eavesdropping powers. In a statement, he said the law has allowed the intelligence community to monitor the communications of terrorists. "Congress' action or lack of action on this important issue will directly affect our ability to keep Americans safe," Bush said.
The White House favors the Senate Intelligence Committee's version of the FISA modernization bill, which provides immunity.
Reid warned Senators this week that they will have to work through the weekend to get a bill passed after Republicans blocked his attempt to extend the existing law for a month.
FOX News' Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.