US: Bush Presses House to Approve Bill on Surveillance

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

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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