Bush uses briefing as 'megaphone' to push Congress on telecom immunity
Update: ACLU spokesperson protests that FISA fight is about lawbreaking, not about money
President Bush held a news conference Thursday morning to press Congress to pass an intelligence bill making it easier for the government to conduct domestic eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails in connection with terrorism investigations. MSNBC's David Gregory noted that Bush was availing himself of the "megaphone" at his disposal, as president, by being able to garner television time to fight for the legislation he wants passed.
Bush met with reporters in the White House press briefing room at 10:05 a.m. EST Thursday.
A temporary intelligence law has expired, and Bush wants Congress to renew it, and to provide legal immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Beforehand, White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush also would push Congress on three other areas: to fully fund the Iraq war, to adopt housing legislation, and to approve a major increase in money to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Gregory also speculated that Bush would address recent "bad economic" news reports.
"Without the cooperation of the private sector we cannot protect our country from terrorist attacks," Bush said early in the briefing, as he urged Congress to give immunity to telecoms.
Referring to class-action plaintiff's attorneys, Bush said, "I don't want to try to get inside their head. I suspect they see, you know, a financial gravy train, [by] trying to sue these companies."
In response, ACLU Washington spokeswoman Liz Rose told RAW STORY that the argument was about potential lawbreaking, and criticized the president -- and his "acolytes" in the Republican party -- for clouding the issue by making profiteering accusations.
"The Bush White House and their acolytes now claim that we must give giant telecoms amnesty for breaking the law, or else those telecoms will no longer cooperate with the government in spying efforts that help protect America," Rose told RAW STORY. "But the truth is that telecoms do not need a special deal. In fact, these companies have immunity from lawsuits for turning over customer records to the government if they do so in conformity with existing law."
Rose added, "But, in this instance, the telephone companies knowingly violated that law. If we give them a free pass this time, won't the telephone companies feel free to violate the laws protecting our privacy in the future?"
"The Bush Administration and their supporters in Congress complain that these lawsuits are simply about money and enriching trial lawyers - suggesting that the litigation should be stopped because of the potential damages that might be awarded in such lawsuits," the civil liberties group spokesperson continued. "This criticism ignores the fact that, according to the rules in the federal court, the only way that we could ensure that a federal judge could continue to explore previous violations if the companies simply changed their participation or the government changed or ended the program was to ask for minimal damages."
Rose added, "We are not interested in recovering money for ourselves. We, however, are committed to assuring that these giant companies are held accountable for violating the law now and thus dissuaded from violating the law in the future."
As Bush began speaking, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., cast the president's position as a "tiresome campaign...to avoid accountability for the unlawful surveillance of Americans."
"The president once again is misusing his bully pulpit," Leahy said. "Once again they are showing they are not above fear-mongering if that's what it takes to get their way."
Addressing the economy, Bush told a reporter that he didn't "think we were headed to a recession, but no question we're in a slowdown."
"Echoing Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Bush says a Senate proposal to deal with the foreclosure crisis would 'do more to bail out lenders and speculators than to help American families keep their homes,'" USA Today noted.
Bush blasted Democrats for not supporting his "surge," and accused them of advocating "retreat."
"Unfortunately this week the Senate debated yet another bill that threatens to cut off funding and tie the hands of our commanders in Iraq," Bush said. "It seems that no matter what happens in Iraq, opponents of the war have one answer: retreat. I guess you could say that when it comes to pushing for withdrawal their strategy is to stay the course."
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama hit back at the president in a statement released Thursday afternoon by his campaign.
ďWith their words today, George Bush and John McCain called for staying the course with an endless war in Iraq and a failed policy of not talking to leaders we donít like, but Americans of all political persuasions are calling for change," Obama said. "The American people arenít looking for tough talk about fighting for 100 years in Iraq, because they know we need to end this war, finish the job in Afghanistan, and take the fight to al Qaeda."
On another issue, Bush said that Turkey's offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq should be limited ó and should end as soon as possible. The ongoing fighting has put the United States in a touchy position, as it is close allies with both Iraq and Turkey, and a long offensive along the border could jeopardize security in Iraq just as the U.S. is trying to stabilize the war-wracked country.
"It should not be long-lasting," Bush said. "The Turks need to move, move quickly, achieve their objective and get out."
He also said, though, that it is in no one's interest for the PKK to have safe havens.
A reporter asked Bush if he would characterize recent comments made by Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama regarding Iraq as "naive," but the president refused to wade too far into the race to succeed him.
"As commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests," Obama said at an Ohio debate on Tuesday. "And if al-Qaida is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad."
On Wednesday, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain mocked Obama over his statement, and drew laughter at a rally in Texas by telling the junior senator, "I have some news. Al-Qaida is in Iraq. It's called `al-Qaida in Iraq."
Obama quickly answered back, telling a rally at Ohio State University in Columbus, "I do know that al-Qaida is in Iraq. So I have some news for John McCain," he added, saying there was no al-Qaida presence in Iraq until President Bush invaded the country.
Noting that McCain likes to tell audiences that he'd follow Osama bin Laden to the "gates of hell" to catch him, Obama taunted: "All he (McCain) has done is to follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq.
Bush did advise Obama that he "better stay focused" on his campaign with Senator Hillary Clinton, since the Democratic presidential race hasn't been decided yet.
(with wire reports)