WASHINGTON – Two top Bush administration officials said Friday that some telecommunications companies are resisting wiretapping orders for terrorists because a surveillance law expired nearly a week ago.
National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell and Attorney General Michael Mukasey made the assertion in a letter to Congress, the latest salvo in a rhetorical war between the White House and Capitol Hill over the law's expiration and the refusal of House Democrats to adopt a Senate-passed bill in its place.
The House has passed its own version of surveillance legislation. Democrats want to work out the differences between the bills rather than accept the Senate's version outright.
The two bills differ in one important way: The Senate bill provides retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that wiretapped American phone and computer lines at the government's request after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but without the permission of a secret court created 30 years ago to oversee such activities. The House does not provide telecom immunity.
President Bush has promised to veto any surveillance bill that does not protect the companies from civil lawsuits that allege violations of privacy and wiretapping laws under the warrantless wiretapping program.
McConnell predicted last week that the government's surveillance of terrorists would be harmed by the expiration of the law. He and Mukasey said that, six days after the law expired, that prediction has come true.
"We have lost intelligence information this past week as a direct result of the uncertainty created by Congress' failure to act," they wrote in a letter to Rep. Sylvestre Reyes, chairman of the House intelligence committee.
They said some private companies have delayed or refused compliance with requests to initiate wiretaps against people covered by orders issued under the expired law. They said most companies are cooperating, but some have suggested they will stop if "the uncertainty persists."
Senior administration officials refused Friday to specify which companies, or how many, were not cooperating. They said the companies believe the law's expiration means no changes can be made in existing orders, which can last for as long as a year. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Democrats swiftly laid the blame at the feet of congressional Republicans and the White House because they had blocked Democratic attempts to extend the law.
"They cannot have it both ways," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees.
McConnell acknowledged last week that the White House's refusal to extend the wiretapping law was meant to pressure Congress to pass the Senate bill.
An administration official said the White House does not want to extend the old law because it believes that will only delay Congress' providing telecom immunity for past warrantless wiretapping.
The Democratic staffs on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees from the House and Senate met again Friday to discuss the two bills. Republican aides refused to attend.