White House Fights Democratic Changes to Surveillance Act

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007

President Bush and other Republicans stepped up their attacks on Democratic legislation that would require more oversight of surveillance within U.S. borders that is directed at foreign targets, escalating a partisan battle over the boundaries of U.S. spying.

In separate votes along party lines, the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees approved bills that would require the government to get approval from a special intelligence court for blanket surveillance of targets overseas. Supporters say the legislation is needed to safeguard the rights of innocent U.S. citizens who may be caught up in such surveillance.

But in remarks before the committee votes, Bush warned that he would not sign the Democratic legislation unless it gives U.S. telecommunications firms retroactive immunity from lawsuits for lending assistance in counterterrorism investigations after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The president also argued that the Democratic proposals "would take us backward" from temporary surveillance legislation enacted in August under heavy GOP pressure. The White House wants to make that law, known as the Protect America Act, permanent.

"Congress must make a choice," Bush said. "Will they keep the intelligence gap closed by making this law permanent? Or will they limit our ability to collect this intelligence and keep us safe, staying a step ahead of the terrorists who want to attack us?"

It is unclear whether Democrats could muster the votes to survive a presidential veto. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a member of the House intelligence panel, accused Bush of playing "the fear card . . . to stampede Congress."

"Time for a deep breath, Mr. President," Harman said. "The point is not whether to conduct surveillance but to do it right, without throwing out the Fourth Amendment," which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The sharp words underscored the escalating confrontation between congressional Democrats and the White House over the extent to which U.S. intelligence agencies can conduct surveillance without court oversight. The law passed in August expanded the government's ability to intercept the communications of intelligence targets overseas, but it expires in February.

Democrats want to make changes to the law before approving an extension, and they have focused most heavily on complaints from civil liberties and privacy advocates that the law gives the government too much leeway to spy on Americans without warrants as part of foreign intelligence investigations.

The bill proposed by House Democrats -- and passed yesterday with small changes by each of the two committees -- would require court approval for a number of procedures used by the government, including the method for selecting those subjected to surveillance.

The Democratic proposal has come under attack from both the left and the right. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, objects to giving the government blanket authority for some surveillance rather than requiring individual warrants.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, say the proposal would harm efforts to combat terrorism and would hamper intelligence efforts related to the war in Iraq. Their arguments have been accompanied by a concerted push by White House officials to focus attention this week on the continuing threat posed by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Bush and other administration officials have signaled they will reject legislation that does not include legal immunity for the telecom firms, many of which face lawsuits for helping to conduct domestic surveillance after the Sept. 11 attacks. Telecom firms are lobbying forcefully behind the scenes for such a provision, which was not included in the temporary law passed earlier this year.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has signaled that Democrats may be willing to negotiate on the immunity issue if the administration tells Congress more about the nature of, and legal justification for, its post-9/11 surveillance activities.

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

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