Bush Pushes House to Renew Surveillance Law

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008; 1:38 PM

President Bush called on the House of Representatives today to renew a surveillance law that expired this month and to protect telecommunications companies from lawsuits, saying it was "not fair" to allow the firms to be sued for cooperating with the federal government's efforts to monitor terrorist suspects.

Addressing an annual gathering of the nation's governors, Bush began his speech by lobbying once again for legislation that would permanently extend provisions of the Protect America Act of 2007, which expired Feb. 16, and would add retroactive legal immunity for telephone companies.

"I get briefed every morning about threats we face, and they're real," Bush told the National Governors Association at the White House. "In my judgment, we have got to give the professionals who work hard to protect us all the tools they need. To put it bluntly, if the enemy is calling to America, we really need to know what they're saying. And we need to know what they're thinking. And we need to know who they're talking to. . . . It's essential that we understand the mentality of these killers."

Congressional Democrats accused Bush of using scare tactics in an effort to divide them and to distract attention from the administration's policy failures.

Bush said the "core of the problem" is whether customers who allege privacy violations should be allowed to sue phone companies that turned over records to the federal government without court orders after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. The companies, notably AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, acted in response to the administration's request for help in pursuing suspected terrorists, but now face more than 40 lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages for alleged invasions of privacy.

Bush said his answer is "absolutely not; they shouldn't be sued." The government told the companies "that their participation was necessary -- and it was and still is -- and that what we had asked them to do was legal," he said. "And now they're getting sued for billions of dollars, and it's not fair."

Allowing the lawsuits would "create doubt amongst private-sector folks who we need to help protect us" and would "require disclosure of information which will make it harder to protect the country," Bush told the governors. "It makes absolutely no sense to give the enemy more knowledge about what the United States is doing to protect the American people."

He also argued that failing to provide legal immunity would "make it harder to convince companies to participate in the future."

The Senate passed "a very strong, bipartisan bill" that includes immunity and is "a bill that we can live with," Bush said. But the House, which convenes this afternoon after a Presidents' Day recess, left for its break 10 days ago without taking up the Senate bill. A House version does not contain the immunity provision.

The Senate bill "should be put on the House floor for a vote, up or down," Bush said.

Democratic lawmakers reject Bush's arguments and vow that they will not allow him to blame them for his failure to defeat al-Qaeda, which they said is rebuilding in remote areas of Pakistan while many U.S. intelligence assets are focused on the war in Iraq.

"Unfortunately, instead of working with Congress to achieve the best policies to keep our country safe, once again President Bush has resorted to scare tactics and political games," four Democratic lawmakers wrote in an op-ed piece published in today's Washington Post.

Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Reps. Silvestre Reyes (Tex.) and John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) said that despite Bush's "overheated rhetoric" on the issue, U.S. surveillance of terrorist groups will continue under the previous law until at least August. In any case, they said, the government can continue to use the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct electronic monitoring with a special warrant.

They said Democrats are working to reconcile the House and Senate bills and urged GOP lawmakers to join them in the coming weeks to craft bipartisan legislation.

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