WASHINGTON – President Bush said Saturday that lawmakers' failure to renew an eavesdropping law will make it more difficult to track terrorists and "we may lose a vital lead that could prevent an attack on America."
Democrats faulted the president, who taped his weekly radio address before he left on a trip in Africa, for "whipping up false fears and creating artificial confrontation."
"Their true concern here is not national security," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. "Rather they want to protect the financial interests of telecommunications companies and avoid judicial scrutiny of their warrantless wiretapping program."
At issue is a law that made it easier for the government to spy on foreign phone calls and e-mails that pass through the United States. The expiration time: midnight Saturday.
The president wanted the House to approve a Senate bill that would have renewed the law. Bush opposed a temporary extension; lawmakers left for a 12-day recess without extending the law. The Senate measure included legal protections for telecommunications companies that helped the government wiretap U.S. computer and phone lines after the Sept. 11 attacks without clearance from a secret court that oversees such activities.
"Some congressional leaders claim that this will not affect our security," the president said. "They are wrong. Because Congress failed to act, it will be harder for our government to keep you safe from terrorist attack.
"At midnight, the attorney general and the director of national intelligence will be stripped of their power to authorize new surveillance against terrorist threats abroad. This means that as terrorists change their tactics to avoid our surveillance, we may not have the tools we need to continue tracking them — and we may lose a vital lead that could prevent an attack on America," Bush said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney and attorney general of Rhode Island, spoke for Democrats in the party's radio response.
"We know this president dislikes compromise, but this time he has taken his stubborn approach too far," Whitehouse said. "He is whipping up false fears, and creating artificial confrontation. As the president himself said in the Rose Garden, 'There is really no excuse for letting this critical legislation expire. So let's get it done.'
"But the president instead chose political gamesmanship, rejecting a short extension of the Protect America Act that would allow Congress to complete its work," Whitehouse said. "Make no mistake: If the surveillance law expires, if any intelligence loss results, it is President Bush's choice. Period."
Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told reporters traveling with the president in Africa there was little the government could do to compensate for what it considered to be lesser protections against terrorist attacks.
"We're making all the time every effort we can on intelligence, and when one of your important tools is taken away from you for a period of time, it's hard to compensate for it," he said. "That's why we call it a 'gap in intelligence.' Gaps are hard to fill."
Added Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.: "At midnight, the country will be more at risk than it is today. And that risk will increase each day we don't have a solution to this problem."
White House officials seethed over the fact that the House, rather than passing the eavesdropping bill, approved contempt citations against two Bush confidants, chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former counsel Harriet Miers, over their refusal to cooperate with an investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys.
"House leaders chose politics over protecting the country — and our country is at greater risk as a result," Bush said.
"My administration will take every step within our power to minimize the damage caused by the House's irresponsible behavior," he said. "Yet it is still urgent that Congress act."
Reid and Pelosi responded that Democrats "will continue to work on a bipartisan basis to finalize a strong law."
"As we do, there should be no question in anyone's mind that U.S. intelligence agencies have the legal ability to take all actions necessary to protect the security of the American people," they said.