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House Defies Bush on Wiretaps
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the Democrats will pay a political price for leaving a national security issue unfinished and recessing for a break. "They're just playing with fire on this," he said.
The secret court directives issued under the Protect America Act are valid for a year, meaning that all will remain in effect until at least August, intelligence officials said. The underlying law that has governed covert spying for 30 years, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, will also remain in effect.
In addition, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Sylvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), said in a letter to Bush yesterday that existing surveillance orders "may cover every terrorist group without limitation," and that new groups, telephone numbers and e-mails can be added to those orders regardless of whether the temporary law expires.
"If our nation is left vulnerable in the coming months, it will not be because we don't have enough domestic spying powers," Reyes wrote. "It will be because your Administration has not done enough to defeat terrorist organizations -- including al-Qaeda -- that have gained strength since 9/11."
Bush has used the veto pen to block repeated Democratic efforts to put restrictions on war funding and has won most of the tools he considers necessary to wage the fight against terrorists despite criticism from civil libertarians. Bush also threatened a veto during the surveillance bill dispute, saying he would reject any legislation that reached his desk without retroactive immunity for the telecom firms.
Several Democrats said yesterday that many in their party wish to take a more measured approach to terrorism issues, and they refused to be stampeded by Bush. "We have seen what happens when the president uses fearmongering to stampede Congress into making bad decisions," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "That's why we went to war in Iraq."
White House officials and their allies were angry that the Democrats did not "blink," as one outside adviser said. The decision to defy the White House came in the form of a weeklong adjournment of the House yesterday afternoon.
Pelosi said she instructed committee chairmen to begin talks with their Democratic counterparts in the Senate, who this week supported the administration's position on the surveillance bill, suggesting that a compromise might be possible in the coming weeks.
The move prompted House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to stage a walkout with scores of other GOP lawmakers just before Democrats voted to cite the two Bush aides for contempt of Congress.
"We have space on the calendar today for a politically charged fishing expedition, but no space for a bill that would protect the American people from terrorists who want to kill us," Boehner said. He then told his colleagues: "Let's just get up and leave."
In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Kenneth L. Wainstein, head of the Justice Department's national security division, said that the Protect America Act had enabled surveillance agencies to fill "the intelligence gaps that were so troubling to us." Expiration of the law, he said, would force the Justice Department to seek new surveillance approval, requiring more paperwork and time, if the telecommunication provider of a new terrorism suspect is not covered under existing directives.
Ben Powell, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said on the same call that the government had "obtained significant information" about terrorists using its expanded powers, allowing it to disrupt "planned terrorist attacks" and to gain intelligence about a potential suicide bomber. He did not provide details.
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.