WASHINGTON – House Democratic leaders came under criticism Saturday from President Bush who said they are blocking intelligence legislation so lawyers can sue telephone companies for helping the government eavesdrop on suspected terrorists.
Terrorists are plotting attacks "at this very moment," Bush said in his weekly radio address. He again urged the House to act on Senate-passed legislation needed to renew the intelligence law that expired last weekend.
The Senate bill provides retroactive protection for telecommunications companies that wiretapped U.S. phone and computer lines at the government's request, but without the permission of a secret court created 30 years ago to oversee such activities. The House version does not provide such immunity against lawsuits.
The Justice Department and Office of National Intelligence said Saturday that telecommunication companies are now complying with existing surveillance warrants. The agencies' statement reversed their declaration late Friday that some companies had refused to initiate wiretaps against people covered by orders issued under the expired law.
The statement said new surveillance activities under existing warrants will resume "for now," but that the delay "impaired our ability to cover foreign intelligence targets, which resulted in missed intelligence information."
The statement also said companies may resist orders in the future if Congress does not pass a law with retroactive immunity.
National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell predicted last week that the government's surveillance of terrorists would be harmed if the law were allowed to expire. He and Attorney General Michael Mukasey said that prediction had come true.
Later Friday, the companies — whom administration officials refused to name — reversed their opposition to expanding existing orders to cover new surveillance activities.
The law expired after Congress left on a 10-day recess before reconciling the House and Senate versions of its replacement.
"When Congress reconvenes on Monday, members of the House have a choice to make: They can empower the trial bar, or they can empower the intelligence community," Bush said in his Saturday radio address. "They can help class-action trial lawyers sue for billions of dollars, or they can help our intelligence officials protect millions of lives."
Bush has promised to veto any bill that does not protect the companies from suits that allege violations of privacy and wiretapping laws under the warrantless wiretapping program.
"It is unfair and unjust to threaten these companies with financial ruin only because they are believed to have done the right thing and helped their country," the president said.
"House leaders are blocking this legislation, and the reason can be summed up in three words: class-action lawsuits."
Democrats blamed the alleged loss of intelligence on their Republican colleagues for letting the law expire because they and the White House blocked Democratic attempts to extend the current law a second time until the two bills could be reconciled.
Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the expiration of the law does not endanger national security. He said well-established, emergency provisions of current surveillance laws are more than adequate to address emerging threats.
"We expect the House and the Senate will produce permanent legislation in the next few weeks," said Conyers, D-Mich. "But as we continue to move forward, there should be no question in anyone's mind that the United State intelligence agencies have the legal ability to take all actions necessary to protect the security of the American people. For anyone to suggest otherwise is irresponsible and totally inaccurate."