By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007 3:00 PM
President Bush today called on Congress to make permanent a law that gives the government broad authority to eavesdrop without warrants on phone calls, e-mail and other communication between people in the United States and suspected terrorists abroad.
The president wants Congress to extend the law, set to expire in February, that allows spy agencies to intercept the communications of suspected terrorists that pass through U.S. switching facilities.
"It is the job of Congress to give the professionals the tools they need to do their work as effectively as possible," Bush said during a visit to the headquarters of the National Security Agency in Fort Meade.
The Bush administration, facing harsh criticism over its warrantless eavesdropping program, has launched a new effort to win support for the law, which Congress temporarily extended last month. In recent days, the administration has sent top intelligence officials to Capitol Hill in an effort to assure Democratic lawmakers that the law will not result in domestic surveillance without a court order, as some critics have charged.
In a letter to Capitol Hill last week, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth L. Wainstein said the Protect America Act does not authorize physical searches of homes, domestic mail or personal effects and computers, and that Justice Department lawyers "do not think" it authorizes the collection of medical or library records.
Democratic leaders in Congress say they want to rework the law to limit the president's authority and to provide more oversight by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But in his comments, Bush said those changes would make the law overly restrictive, and hinder the ability of intelligence officials to collect potentially valuable information about terrorist activities in a timely manner.
"Unfortunately, some in Congress now want to restrict the tools," Bush said. "These restrictions would impede the flow of information that helps us protect our people. These restrictions would reopen gaps in our intelligence that we had just closed."
Before the bill's passage in August, the Bush administration pointed to intelligence reports that the United States was in a "heightened threat environment" and that al-Qaeda was regrouping in Pakistan. The law passed over Democratic alternatives that included court oversight, with Republicans warning that failure to act would leave the country vulnerable to another terrorist attack.
Democrats feared being portrayed as weak on national security, and approved the measure. But since its passage, they have acknowledged that they did not sufficiently vet the bill for possible unintended consequences, and have launched an effort to fix what Democratic leaders call the "many deficiencies" in the law.