Bush Chides Democrats Over Intel Bill

Feb 20, 2006
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Bush Chides Democrats Over Intel Bill
February 23, 2008 10:57 AM EST

WASHINGTON - President Bush said Saturday that Democratic leaders in the House are blocking key intelligence legislation so trial lawyers can sue phone companies that helped the government eavesdrop on suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Terrorists are plotting new attacks against America "at this very moment," Bush said in renewing his call for the House to pass legislation needed to renew the intelligence law that expired last weekend.

The Senate bill, which passed 68-29, provides retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that wiretapped American phone and computer lines at the government's request, but without the permission of a secret court created 30 years ago to oversee such activities. The House version does not provide immunity for the companies against lawsuits.

The current law expired after Congress left on a 10-day recess before reconciling the House and Senate versions of its replacement.

"When Congress reconvenes on Monday, members of the House have a choice to make: They can empower the trial bar, or they can empower the intelligence community," Bush said in his Saturday radio address. "They can help class-action trial lawyers sue for billions of dollars, or they can help our intelligence officials protect millions of lives."

Bush has promised to veto any surveillance bill that does not protect the companies from civil lawsuits that allege violations of privacy and wiretapping laws under the warrantless wiretapping program.

"It is unfair and unjust to threaten these companies with financial ruin only because they are believed to have done the right thing and helped their country," the president said, urging the House to give the Senate bill an up-or-down vote.

"House leaders are blocking this legislation, and the reason can be summed up in three words: class-action lawsuits."

In a letter to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee on Friday, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said that since the law expired, some telecommunications companies have resisted wiretapping orders for suspected terrorists.

McConnell predicted last week that the government's surveillance of terrorists would be harmed if the law was allowed to expire. He and Mukasey said that prediction has come true.

"We have lost intelligence information this past week as a direct result of the uncertainty created by Congress' failure to act," they wrote in a letter to Rep. Sylvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

They said some private companies have delayed or refused compliance with requests to initiate wiretaps against people covered by orders issued under the expired law. They said most companies are cooperating, but some have suggested they will stop if "the uncertainty persists."

Democrats blame their Republican colleagues for letting the law expire because they and the White House blocked Democratic attempts to extend the current law a second time until the two bills could be reconciled.

Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the expiration of the law does not endanger national security. He said well-established, emergency provisions of current surveillance laws are more than adequate to address emerging threats.

"We expect the House and the Senate will produce permanent legislation in the next few weeks," said Conyers, D-Mich. "But as we continue to move forward, there should be no question in anyone's mind that the United State intelligence agencies have the legal ability to take all actions necessary to protect the security of the American people. For anyone to suggest otherwise is irresponsible and totally inaccurate."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.