WASHINGTON – President Bush pressured the House on Wednesday to pass new rules for monitoring terrorists' communications, saying "terrorists are planning new attacks on our country ... that will make Sept. 11 pale by comparison."
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Bush said he would not agree to giving the House more time to debate a measure the Senate passed Tuesday governing the government's ability to work with telecommunications companies to eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails between suspected terrorists. The bill gives phone companies retroactive protection from lawsuits filed on the basis of cooperation they gave the government without court permission — something Bush insisted was included in the bill.
About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecom companies by people alleging violations of wiretapping and privacy laws. The House did not include the immunity provision in a similar bill it passed last year.
"In order to be able to discover ... the enemy's plans, we need the cooperation of telecommunication companies," Bush said. "If these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won't participate. They won't help us. They won't help protect America."
The 68-29 Senate vote Tuesday to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act belied the nearly two months of stops and starts and bitter political wrangling that preceded it. The two sides had battled to balance civil liberties with the need to conduct surveillance on potential adversaries.
Bush said the Senate bill was passed with wide, bipartisan support, and the House should pass it too — before the current law expires at midnight on Saturday.
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"Congress has had over six months to discuss and deliberate," said Bush, who stood alongside Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell. "The time for debate is over. I will not accept any temporary extension. They have already been given a two-week extension."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused the president and Senate Republicans of being more interested in politicizing intelligence than resolving the debate. Reid said that the issue would not be before Congress if Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney "in their unyielding efforts to expand presidential powers," had not created a system to conduct wiretapping, including on U.S. citizens, outside the bounds of federal law.
"The president could have taken the simple step of requesting new authority from Congress ... but whether out of convenience, incompetence, or outright disdain for the rule of law, the administration chose to ignore Congress and ignore the Constitution," Reid said.
Reid said if the president chooses to veto a short-term extension, he, not Congress will have to take the blame for any gaps in collecting intelligence of terrorists' communications.
"Due to months of White House foot-dragging, the relevant House committees have only just gotten important documents related to whether the Bush Administration followed the law and the Constitution," he said. "They need some time to review and analyze them. We must not let this critical issue be resolved by White House bullying."
Doubtful they can work out the differences in the bills by the time the law expires, Democrats in the Senate and the House prepared short-term extensions that would keep the law in effect for several more weeks. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky blocked an extension attempt Tuesday. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said Republicans in the House would fight another extension.
"The one thing we've learned about Congress is they won't act until forced to," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters after Bush's statement. "We're not going to pass extensions into perpetuity."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said Tuesday he still opposes retroactive immunity.
"There is no basis for the broad telecommunications company amnesty provisions advocated by the administration," Conyers wrote in a letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding asking for documents about the wiretapping program. The documents have been withheld from Congress.
While giving the White House what it wanted on immunity, the Senate also expanded the power of the court to oversee government eavesdropping on Americans. The amendment would give the FISA court the authority to monitor whether the government is complying with procedures designed to protect the privacy of innocent Americans whose telephone or computer communications are captured during surveillance of a foreign target.
The bill would also require FISA court orders to eavesdrop on Americans who are overseas. Under current law, the government can wiretap or search the possessions of anyone outside the United States — even a soldier serving overseas — without court permission if it believes the person may be a foreign agent.