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US: Bush Presses House to Approve Bill on Surveillance


by ERIC LICHTBLAUThe New York Times
February 13th, 2008

WASHINGTON — President Bush strongly urged the House of Representatives on Wednesday to quickly approve a surveillance bill passed by the Senate Tuesday evening, saying he would not agree to a further extension of the current eavesdropping law.

The president effectively gave the House a deadline to act, since the current authority to intercept telephone conversations or electronic communications expires at midnight on Saturday.

“There is no reason why Republicans and Democrats in the House cannot pass the bill immediately,” he said in comments made at the White House, adding that the failure to do so “will jeopardize the security of our citizens.”

The president’s remarks came the morning after the Senate handed the White House a major victory by voting to broaden the government’s spy powers and to give legal protection to phone companies that cooperated in President Bush’s program of eavesdropping without warrants.

The immunity for the phone companies is the key difference between the Senate bill and the one passed by the House last year. The president said that without that protection, American telecommunications companies would face lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars. Without the protection, he said, “they won’t participate, they won’t help us.”

“Liability protection is critical to securing the private sector’s cooperation with our intelligence efforts,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush praised the Senate version, saying, “The Senate has passed a good bill and it has shown that protecting our nation is not a partisan issue.”

On Tuesday, the Senate rejected amendments that would have imposed greater civil liberties checks on the government’s surveillance powers. Finally, the Senate voted 68 to 29 to approve the legislation, which the White House had been pushing for months.

The outcome in the Senate amounted, in effect, to a broader proxy vote in support of Mr. Bush’s wiretapping program. The wide-ranging debate before the final vote presaged discussion that will play out this year in the presidential and Congressional elections on other issues testing the president’s wartime authority, including secret detentions, torture and Iraq war financing.

Republicans hailed the reworking of the surveillance law as essential to protecting national security, but some Democrats and many liberal advocacy groups saw the outcome as another example of the Democrats’ fears of being branded weak on terrorism.

“Some people around here get cold feet when threatened by the administration,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who leads the Judiciary Committee and who had unsuccessfully pushed a much more restrictive set of surveillance measures.

Among the presidential contenders, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, voted in favor of the final measure, while the two Democrats, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, did not vote. Mr. Obama did oppose immunity on a key earlier motion to end debate. Mrs. Clinton, campaigning in Texas, issued a statement saying she would have voted to oppose the final measure.

The measure extends, for at least six years, many of the broad new surveillance powers that Congress hastily approved last August just before its summer recess. Intelligence officials said court rulings had left dangerous gaps in their ability to intercept terrorist communications.

The bill, allows the government to eavesdrop on large bundles of foreign-based communications on its own authority so long as Americans are not the targets. A secret intelligence court, which traditionally has issued individual warrants before wiretapping began, would review the procedures set up by the executive branch only after the fact to determine whether there were abuses involving Americans.

“This is a dramatic restructuring” of surveillance law, said Michael Sussmann, a former Justice Department intelligence lawyer who represents several telecommunication companies. “And the thing that’s so dramatic about this is that you’ve removed the court review. There may be some checks after the fact, but the administration is picking the targets.”

The Senate plan also adds the provision that was considered critical by the White House: shielding phone companies from legal liability. That program allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without warrants on the international communications of Americans suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda.

AT&T and other major phone companies are facing some 40 lawsuits from customers who claim their actions were illegal. The Bush administration maintains that if the suits are allowed to continue in court, they could bankrupt the companies and discourage them from cooperating in future intelligence operations.

Democratic opponents, led by Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, have argued that the plan effectively rewarded phone companies by providing them with legal insulation for actions that violated longstanding law and their own privacy obligations to their customers. But immunity supporters said the phone carriers acted out of patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks in complying with what they believed in good faith was a legally binding order from the president.

“This, I believe, is the right way to go for the security of the nation,” said Senator John D. Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who leads the intelligence committee. His support for the plan, after intense negotiations with the White House and his Republican colleagues, was considered critical to its passage but drew criticism from civil liberties groups because of $42,000 in contributions that Mr. Rockefeller received last year from AT&T and Verizon executives.

John Holusha contributed reporting from New York and Brian Knowlton and Carl Hulse contributed reporting from Washington.





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