WASHINGTON – President Bush said Monday that telecommunications companies should be thanked, not sued, for helping the government conduct warrantless wiretapping in the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Senate version of a law to make it easier for the government to conduct domestic eavesdropping on suspected terrorists' phone calls and e-mails provides retroactive legal protection for telecommunications companies that wiretapped without court permission. The House version does not.
Bush says he will veto any bill without it, and he has kept up a drumbeat of events and remarks in recent weeks to press his point.
Telecom companies face around 40 lawsuits for their alleged role in wiretapping their American customers.
"Should these lawsuits be allowed to proceed, or should any company that may have helped save American lives be thanked for performing a patriotic service?" Bush said after meeting at the White House with the National Association of Attorneys General.
"Should those who stepped forward to say we're going to help defend America have to go to the courthouse to defend themselves, or should the Congress and the president say thank you for doing your patriotic duty? I believe we ought to say thank you," he said.
Bush said there are enough votes in the House to pass the Senate version, but that "a minority in the House has been holding the bill up."
The president pointed to what he said was an encouraging development: remarks from the House Intelligence Committee chairman over the weekend that he expects a compromise soon on providing legal protections to telecom companies. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said a vote could come within the next week.
"I urge the full House to pass this legislation as soon as possible," Bush said. "I know we need to have the private carriers available to provide information."
It wasn't clear from Reyes' remarks what sort of protections Democrats might be willing to agree to, and whether they would pass muster with Bush. Reyes did not specifically say whether the House proposal would mirror the Senate's version.
House Democrats worry that providing retroactive legal immunity would erode civil liberties protections. They have accused Bush of overstating the threat from deliberating over new legislation in order to bully them into the bill he wants updating the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
"There's a lot of legal complexities on the FISA renewal debate, but the real issue comes down to this: To defend the country, we need to be able to monitor communications of terrorists quickly and be able to do it effectively," Bush said.