|Bush: Telecom immunity must be preserved |
|WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush said Wednesday that he will not sign a new eavesdropping bill if it does not grant retroactive immunity to U.S. telecommunications companies that helped conduct electronic surveillance without court orders. |
A proposed bill unveiled by Democrats on Tuesday does not include such a provision. Bush, appearing on the South Lawn as that measure was taken up in two House committees, said the measure is unacceptable for that and other reasons.
“Today the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees are considering a proposed bill that instead of making the Protect America Act permanent would take us backward,” the president said.
Bush wants legislation that extends and strengthens a temporary bill passed in August. Democrats want a bill that rolls back some of the new powers it granted the government to eavesdrop without warrants on suspected foreign terrorists.
Under pressure to close what Bush officials called a dangerous gap in intelligence collection, Congress hastily passed a the temporary bill before leaving Washington for a summer break. Democratic leaders in Congress set the law to expire in six months so that it could be fine-tuned, and civil liberties groups are saying the changes they’ve already legislated gave too much new latitude to the administration and provided too little protection against government spying on Americans without oversight.
The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act governs when the government must obtain eavesdropping warrants from a secret intelligence court.
This year’s update to the law allows the government to eavesdrop without a court order on communications conducted by a person reasonably believed to be outside the U.S., even when the communications flow through the U.S. communications network — or if an American is on one end of the conversation — so long as that person is not the intended focus or target of the surveillance. The Bush administration said this was necessary because technological advances in communications had put U.S. officials at a disadvantage.
The original law generally prohibited surveillance inside the U.S., unless a court first approved it.
Seeking to increase the pressure on the Democratic-controlled Congress, Bush said the update has already been effective, with intelligence professionals able “to gather critical information that would have been missed without this authority.”
“Keeping this authority is critical to keeping America safe,” he said.
The temporary law requires court review, but only four months after the fact and only involving the administration’s general process of collecting the intelligence, not individual cases. Until then, the director of national intelligence and the attorney general would oversee and approve the process of targeting foreign terrorists.
Setting a collision course with the administration, the Democratic bill would provide greater jurisdiction to the secret FISA court.
If the government wants to eavesdrop on a foreign target or group of targets located outside the United States, and there is a possibility they will be communicating with Americans, the government can get an “umbrella” or “blanket” court order for up to one year. In an emergency, the government could begin surveillance without a blanket order as long as it applies for court approval within seven days, under the Democratic bill.
A top Democratic leader opened the door on Tuesday to allowing an immunity provision. But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the Bush administration must first detail what the companies did. About 40 pending lawsuits name telecommunications companies for alleged violations of wiretapping laws.
Bush detailed criteria that the bill must meet before he would sign it, including the immunity provision and the broad requirement that it “ensure that protections intended for the American people are not extended to terrorists overseas who are plotting to harm us.”
“Congress must make a choice,” he 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.”
Published in The Messenger on 10.11.07