WASHINGTON – President Bush urged Congress on Wednesday to extend an expiring terrorist surveillance law that modernizes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, saying new measures supported by Democrats don't go far enough to protect the country.
Speaking on the South Lawn at the same time the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees were debating the legislation, Bush said the bill needs to meet three criteria before he will sign it. They include giving intelligence professionals "the tools and flexibility they need" to protect the country; closing the intelligence gap to make sure protections intended for Americans aren't extended to terrorists overseas; and liability protection for telecom companies who are facing multibillion dollar lawsuits for supplying the U.S. government with telephone numbers of suspected terrorists.
"Unfortunately, when Congress passed the Protect America Act, they set its provisions to expire in February," Bush said. "The problem is, the threat to America is not going to expire in February. So Congress must make a choice: Will they keep the intelligence gap closed by making this law permanent; or will they limit our ability to collect this intelligence and keep us safe, staying a step ahead of the terrorists who want to attack us?"
Ignoring the president's warning the Judiciary Committee approved the new Democratic legislation, called the RESTORE Act, Wednesday on a party-line 20-14 vote. It did not include liability protections for the telecom companies.
“The act compromises the ability of our intelligence community to conduct effective investigations. And it compromises the legal protections that allow communications providers to coordinate with law enforcement and intelligence officials on national security investigations,” said Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee.
Under pressure to close what Bush officials called a dangerous gap in intelligence collection, Congress hastily passed The Protect America Act in August, but included sunset provisions on several new powers granted to the government for eavesdropping without warrants on suspected foreign terrorists.
Civil liberties groups say the changes gave too much new latitude to the administration and provided too little protection against government spying on Americans without oversight.
This year's update to the law allows the government to eavesdrop without a court order on communications conducted by a person reasonably believed to be outside the U.S., even the communications flow through the U.S. communications network — or if an American is on one end of the conversation — so long as that person is not the intended focus or target of the surveillance. The Bush administration said this was necessary because technological advances in communications had put U.S. officials at a disadvantage.
The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act governs when the government must obtain eavesdropping warrants from a secret intelligence court. The original law generally prohibited surveillance inside the U.S., unless a court first approved it. The Democratic version now being circulated gives the secret FISA court greater jurisdiction on approving wiretaps and other electronic eavesdropping.
If the government wants to eavesdrop on a foreign target or group of targets located outside the United States, and there is a possibility they will be communicating with Americans, the government can get an "umbrella" or "blanket" court order for up to one year. In an emergency, the government could begin surveillance without a blanket order as long as it applies for court approval within seven days.
Seeking to increase pressure on the Democratic-controlled Congress, Bush said the sunsetted provisions have already been effective, with intelligence professionals able "to gather critical information that would have been missed without this authority."
"Keeping this authority is critical to keeping America safe," he said.
But liberal Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said Congress should reject the president's demands and "stand up to the administration's fear-mongering."
"The president is trying to use fear and exaggeration to intimidate Congress into granting the executive branch unchecked power that will put the rights of Americans at risk," Feingold said in a statement.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., suggested that the door could still be open to include some liability safeguards. But Smith said the Democratic legislation so far is not a bipartisan compromise, it's just compromised.
“Rather than acknowledge the urgent needs of the intelligence community, the RESTORE Act provides unprecedented constitutional protections to terrorists, spies and other enemies overseas,” Smith said. "This is just another example of how Democrats are unwilling to enact smart, bipartisan legislation that strengthens national security.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.