NYT : Bush Warns House on Surveillance

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bush Warns House on Surveillance

By BRIAN KNOWLTON | March 13, 2008

WASHINGTON — With the House moving toward a vote on electronic surveillance legislation that the White House has said falls far short of its requirements, President Bush warned legislators strongly Thursday morning against passing what he called “a partisan bill that will undermine American security.”

In clear defiance of the White House, the proposal from House Democratic leaders would not give retroactive legal protection to the phone companies that helped in the National Security Agency program of warrantless wiretapping. Mr. Bush also threatened to veto any such measure, should it reach his desk.

The Senate last month passed a bill that did provide such protection and also broadened government eavesdropping powers.

Administration officials say that the Democrats know that the House version would face probable defeat in the Senate. But House Democratic leaders have shown themselves more ready than in the past for a fight on national security.

Using tough language on a subject on which he has been persistent and unswerving, Mr. Bush warned House members that “they should not leave for Easter recess without getting the Senate bill to my desk.”

He argued that failure to pass the Senate language would make it harder to detect emerging terrorist threats.

“Voting for this bill would make our country less safe,” Mr. Bush said. “Congress should stop playing politics with the past and focus on helping us prevent attacks in the future.”

Democrats have accused the president of fear-mongering, saying surveillance can be monitored more carefully without losing its effectiveness.

Mr. Bush also argued again that the House Democrats’ approach would unfairly expose the phone companies to lawsuits that could potentially be enormously expensive.

“House leaders simply adopted the position that class-action trial lawyers are taking in the multibillion law suits they have filed” against the phone companies, he said. This “would undermine the private sector’s willingness to cooperate with the intelligence community, cooperation that is essential to protecting our country from harm.”

Instead of giving the companies blanket immunity, as the Senate would do, the House proposal was understood to give the federal courts special authorization to hear classified evidence and decide whether the phone companies should be held liable.

But the president said that this approach “could reopen dangerous intelligence gaps by putting in place a cumbersome court approval process that would make it harder to collect intelligence on foreign terrorists” and could lead, he said, to disclosure of state secrets.

“Their partisan legislation would extend protections we enjoy as Americans to foreign terrorists overseas,” Mr. Bush said.

In a statement yesterday, 19 Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee questioned the administration’s arguments.

“We have concluded that the administration has not established a valid and credible case justifying the extraordinary action of Congress enacting blanket retroactive immunity as set forth in the Senate bill,” they said.

Some 40 lawsuits are pending in federal courts, charging that by cooperating with the eavesdropping program put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the phone companies violated their responsibilities to customers and federal privacy laws.