House stands up to Bush pressure for quick wiretap bill
David Edwards
Published: Wednesday February 13, 2008

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A move to temporarily extend a controversial spy law hit a snag Wednesday, as the House voted to debate for three more weeks while failing to concurrently pass a temporary extension of a stop-gap measure.

The president has vowed to veto any legislation updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that does not essentially retroactively legalize his warrantless surveillance program and free phone companies from facing lawsuits.

The bill faces stiff opposition from some Democrats in the House, particularly as it offers blanket legal immunity to telecommunications companies for possible violations of US law if they participate in the measures.

By a vote of 206 to 199 votes, the House agreed Wednesday to prolong its debate for three more weeks. But a bill to extend the Protect America Act, a temporary law that temporarily expands the government's surveillance powers failed 229-191.

The fate of the surveillance law remains unclear.

The votes followed Bush's admonishment earlier in the day, demanding that the House pass new rules for monitoring terrorists' communications, saying "terrorists are planning new attacks on our country ... that will make Sept. 11 pale by comparison."

Bush said he would not agree to giving the House more time to debate a measure the Senate passed Tuesday governing the government's ability to work with telecommunications companies to eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails between suspected terrorists. The bill gives phone companies retroactive protection from lawsuits filed on the basis of cooperation they gave the government without court permission something Bush insisted was included in the bill.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecom companies by people alleging violations of wiretapping and privacy laws. The House did not include the immunity provision in a similar bill it passed last year.

"In order to be able to discover ... the enemy's plans, we need the cooperation of telecommunication companies," Bush said. "If these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won't participate. They won't help us. They won't help protect America."

The 68-29 Senate vote Tuesday to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act belied the nearly two months of stops and starts and bitter political wrangling that preceded it. The two sides had battled to balance civil liberties with the need to conduct surveillance on potential adversaries.

Bush said the Senate bill was passed with wide, bipartisan support, and the House should pass it too before the current law expires at midnight on Saturday.

"Congress has had over six months to discuss and deliberate," said Bush, who stood alongside Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell. "The time for debate is over. I will not accept any temporary extension. They have already been given a two-week extension."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused the president and Senate Republicans of being more interested in politicizing intelligence than resolving the debate. Reid said that the issue would not be before Congress if Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney "in their unyielding efforts to expand presidential powers," had not created a system to conduct wiretapping, including on U.S. citizens, outside the bounds of federal law.

"The president could have taken the simple step of requesting new authority from Congress ... but whether out of convenience, incompetence, or outright disdain for the rule of law, the administration chose to ignore Congress and ignore the Constitution," Reid said.

Reid said if the president chooses to veto a short-term extension, he, not Congress will have to take the blame for any gaps in collecting intelligence of terrorists' communications.

"Due to months of White House foot-dragging, the relevant House committees have only just gotten important documents related to whether the Bush Administration followed the law and the Constitution," he said. "They need some time to review and analyze them. We must not let this critical issue be resolved by White House bullying."

Doubtful they can work out the differences in the bills by the time the law expires, Democrats in the Senate and the House prepared short-term extensions that would keep the law in effect for several more weeks. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky blocked an extension attempt Tuesday. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said Republicans in the House would fight another extension.

"The one thing we've learned about Congress is they won't act until forced to," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters after Bush's statement. "We're not going to pass extensions into perpetuity."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said Tuesday he still opposes retroactive immunity.

"There is no basis for the broad telecommunications company amnesty provisions advocated by the administration," Conyers wrote in a letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding asking for documents about the wiretapping program. The documents have been withheld from Congress.

While giving the White House what it wanted on immunity, the Senate also expanded the power of the court to oversee government eavesdropping on Americans. The amendment would give the FISA court the authority to monitor whether the government is complying with procedures designed to protect the privacy of innocent Americans whose telephone or computer communications are captured during surveillance of a foreign target.

The bill would also require FISA court orders to eavesdrop on Americans who are overseas. Under current law, the government can wiretap or search the possessions of anyone outside the United States even a soldier serving overseas without court permission if it believes the person may be a foreign agent.

This video is from CNN's Newsroom, broadcast February 13, 2008.

(with wire reports)

Transcript as provided by White House:

Director, thank you for joining me. Good morning. At this moment, somewhere in the world, terrorists are planning new attacks on our country. Their goal is to bring destruction to our shores that will make September the 11th pale by comparison. To carry out their plans, they must communicate with each other, they must recruit operatives, and they must share information.

The lives of countless Americans depend on our ability to monitor these communications. Our intelligence professionals must be able to find out who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they're planning.

To help our intelligence agencies do this, Congress passed the Protect America Act last year. Unfortunately, Congress set the law to expire on February 1st and then failed to pass new legislation that would keep these tools in effect over the long run. And so at the 11th hour, Congress passed a temporary 15-day extension of the current law which will expire at midnight this Saturday. I signed that extension. I did so to give members of the House and Senate more time to work out their differences.

Well, the Senate has used this time wisely. I am pleased that last night, senators approved new legislation that will ensure our intelligence professionals have the tools they need to make us safer and they did so by a wide, bipartisan majority. The Senate bill also provides fair and just liability protections for companies that did the right thing and assisted in defending America after the attacks of September the 11th.

In order to be able to discover enemy the enemy's plans, we need the cooperation of telecommunication companies. If these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won't participate; they won't help us; they won't help protect America. Liability protection is critical to securing the private sector's cooperation with our intelligence efforts. The Senate has passed a good bill, and has shown that protecting our nation is not a partisan issue. And I congratulate the senators.

Unfortunately, the House has failed to pass a good bill. And now House leaders say they want still more time to reach agreement with the Senate on a final bill. They make this claim even though it is clear that the Senate bill, the bill passed last night, has significant bipartisan support in the House.

Congress has had over six months to discuss and deliberate. The time for debate is over. I will not accept any temporary extension. House members have had plenty of time to pass a good bill. They have already been given a two-week extension beyond the deadline they set for themselves. If Republicans and Democrats in the Senate can come together on a good piece of legislation, there is no reason why Republicans and Democrats in the House cannot pass the Senate bill immediately.

The House's failure to pass the bipartisan Senate bill would jeopardize the security of our citizens. As Director McConnell has told me, without this law, our ability to prevent new attacks will be weakened. And it will become harder for us to uncover terrorist plots. We must not allow this to happen. It is time for Congress to ensure the flow of vital intelligence is not disrupted. It is time for Congress to pass a law that provides a long-term foundation to protect our country. And they must do so immediately.

Thank you very much.