Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bush opposes temporary extension of spy program

Bush opposes temporary extension of spy program

By Jeremy Pelofsky and Richard Cowan

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President George W. Bush on Wednesday vowed to veto another temporary extension of a domestic spying law and pressed Congress for a long-term fix to shield phone companies that cooperated with his warrantless eavesdropping program.

But the House of Representatives was prepared to defy Bush and vote itself three more weeks to review a White House-backed bill passed by the Democratic-led Senate on Tuesday that would grant phone companies retroactive immunity for having aided Bush's anti-terrorism effort.

"The time for debate is over," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office. "I will not accept any temporary extension."

Democrats who control House said they needed up to three weeks to review and possibly offer revisions to the Senate's bill, which would put into law the government's expanded powers to track communications between terrorism suspects.

The bill would also shield telecommunication companies from potentially billions of dollars in civil damages.

About 40 civil lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. of violating Americans' privacy rights by helping the warrantless domestic spying program that Bush secretly began shortly after the September 11 attacks.

The Senate passed-bill would replace the 6-month-old Protect America Act, set to expire on Saturday, that broadened the ability of U.S. authorities to eavesdrop on enemy targets without a court order. It also provides new protection of civil liberties of Americans swept up in the hunt for terrorists.

Heated debate over the eavesdropping law comes in an election year in which Bush and his fellow Republicans want to use issues such as domestic spying to paint the Democrats as weak on counterterrorism and national security.

"It is time for Congress to pass a law that provides a long-term foundation to protect our country and they must do so immediately," Bush said.

He repeated his warnings that enemies of the United States were plotting new attacks that would dwarf September 11, but Democrats in Congress have insisted on better protections for Americans' civil liberties.

WRANGLING FOR MONTHS

The White House and Congress have been wrangling for months over whether to make permanent a program that allowed surveillance of communications between people in the United States and others overseas if one had suspected terrorist ties.

The most controversial provision in the bill approved by the Senate is retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that agreed to participate in Bush's secret surveillance program.

"If these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won't participate, they won't help us, they won't help protect America," Bush said.

Backers say the firms should be thanked, not punished, for helping protect the United States. They also warn permitting them to be sued would make it difficult to recruit private companies in such efforts in the future.

Immunity foes argue the courts should decide if the phone companies violated the law.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires that the government receive the approval of a secret FISA court to conduct surveillance in the United States of suspected foreign enemy targets.

But Bush authorized warrantless surveillance of communications between people in the United States and others overseas if one had suspected ties to terrorists.

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