President George W. Bush on Wednesday warned the Democratic-led Congress not to “weaken” the power of US spy agencies to eavesdrop on communications between alleged terror suspects.
But the House of Representatives’ judiciary and intelligence committees both defied the president and approved a new bid by Democrats to revise a law extending authorization for warrantless wiretaps.
The new measure would revise the “Protect America Act” hastily passed under fierce pressure from Bush and the intelligence community before Congress broke up for its summer recess in August.
“When Congress passed the Protect America Act, they set its provisions to expire in February,” Bush said at the White House.
“The problem is the threat to America is not going to expire in February.”
Bush warned that new legislation would take the power of US espionage agencies “backward.”
“The Protect America Act is a vital tool in stopping the terrorists — and it would be a grave mistake for Congress to weaken this tool.”
Backers say the Democratic bill would correct constitutional overreaching by the US government on the electronic spying program.
It would not require the government to obtain a warrant from a special secret intelligence court to eavesdrop on two suspects abroad, even if their calls or emails are routed through the servers or networks of US-based firms.
But the bill would require the US government to get a court order if one of the targets of the surveillance is in the United States, or is a US citizen.
In a move that has angered Republicans and the White House, the legislation does not include retroactive legal immunity for US telecommunications firms that took part in the previous administration program of warrantless wiretaps.
“It would be grossly irresponsible for Congress to immunize companies without knowing whether their conduct was legal or not,” said House Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
“Congress should not blindly grant blanket immunity for such a serious matter.”
House speaker Nancy Pelosi said the new Democratic bill gave the US government “all the tools necessary to acquire under the law the intelligence that can keep our country safe.”
Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop, without a court warrant, on telephone calls and emails between people inside the United States and suspected terrorists abroad.
The administration put the warrantless domestic eavesdropping program under the supervision of the secret court in January after months of criticism from civil liberties groups.