NYT : Bush Pushes for Surveillance Law

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bush Pushes for Surveillance Law

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | Published: August 3, 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush said Friday that Congress must stay in session until it approves legislation modernizing a U.S. law governing eavesdropping on foreigners.

"So far the Democrats in Congress have not drafted a bill I can sign," Bush said at FBI headquarters, where he was meeting with counterterror and homeland security officials. "We've worked hard and in good faith with the Democrats to find a solution, but we are not going to put our national security at risk. Time is short."

The president, who has the power under the Constitution to keep Congress in session, said lawmakers cannot leave for their August recess this weekend as planned unless they "pass a bill that will give our intelligence community the tools they need to protect the United States."

Earlier Friday, the White House offered an eleventh-hour accord to Democrats in the negotiations over the matter, saying it would agree to a court review of its foreign intelligence activities instead of leaving certification up to the attorney general and director of national intelligence.

But it attached several conditions that could be unacceptable to Democrats: that the review would only be after-the-fact and would only involve the administration's general process of collecting the intelligence, not individual cases, said a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity to more freely discuss internal deliberations.

Bush said the administration offer is a "a narrow and targeted piece of legislation that will close the gaps in intelligence."

"This is what we need to do our job to protect the American people," the president said. "It's the bare minimum."

The two sides, however, still are far from striking a deal on what all agree needs to happen, and soon: an update of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

At issue is how the government would spy on foreign terror suspects overseas without invading Americans' privacy rights. Democrats want the special FISA Court to review the eavesdropping process to make sure the surveillance does not focus on communications that might be sent to and from Americans.

The law now generally requires court review of government surveillance of suspected terrorists in the United States. It does not specifically address the government's ability to intercept messages believed to come from suspects who are overseas, opening what the White House considers a significant gap in protecting against attacks by foreigners targeting the U.S.

Negotiations broke off shortly before midnight Thursday and resumed Friday morning.

In a statement late Thursday, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said he would agree to a review by the FISA court, but only after the surveillance had begun, not before as some Democrats are demanding.

"To acknowledge the interests of all, I could agree to a procedure that provides for court review -- after needed collection has begun -- of our procedures for gathering foreign intelligence through classified methods directed at foreigners located overseas," McConnell wrote.

"While I would strongly prefer not to engage in such a process, I am prepared to take these additional steps to keep the confidence of members of Congress and the American people that our processes have been subject to court review and approval," he wrote.

The FISA court review would happen 120 days after the surveillance began, another senior administration official said Friday. Until then, McConnell and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would oversee and approve the process of targeting foreign terrorists, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing negotiations.

The administration is demanding that this apply to monitoring of all foreign targets, no matter whether they end up communicating with another foreigner or someone in the U.S, and no matter whether they are a suspected terrorist or a target for some other reason, said the first official.

Democrats leery of Gonzales' involvement said that seemed far too long a period of time before the FISA court could step in.

Bush said that he would judge any bill sent to him by one measure alone: McConnell's judgment as to whether it provides "what you need to prevent an attack on the country."

"If the answer's `no,' I'm going to veto the bill," he said.

The urgent push to update FISA may stem from a recent ruling by the court that oversees it, according to remarks earlier this week by House Republican Leader John Boehner during an interview with Fox News.

"There's been a ruling, over the last four or five months, that prohibits the ability of our intelligence services and our counterintelligence people from listening in to two terrorists in other parts of the world where the communication could come through the United States," said Boehner, going further that most officials have in explaining the pressing need for change.

Talk of keeping Congress in session is premature for now, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who noted a bipartisan consensus that something needs to be done and the availability of less-drastic legislative manuevers.

"We cannot imagine that Congress would leave without fixing the problem," she said.