President Bush presses for FISA extension

February 13, 2008 6:46:51 AM PST
President Bush pressured the House on Wednesday to pass new rules for monitoring terrorists' communications, saying, "at this moment, somewhere in the world, terrorists are planning new attacks on our country."

Bush said he would not agree to giving the House more time to debate a measure the Senate passed Tuesday governing the government's ability to work with telecommunications companies to eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails between suspected terrorists. The bill gives phone companies retroactive protection from lawsuits filed on the basis of cooperation they gave the government without court permission - something Bush insisted was included in the bill.

"We need the cooperation of telecommunications companies," Bush said. "If these companies are subjected to lawsuits costing billions of dollars, they won't participate, they won't help us."

About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecom companies by people alleging violations of wiretapping and privacy laws. But the House did not include the immunity provision in a similar bill it passed last year.

The Senate passed its measure with bipartisan support, Bush said, and the House should pass it as well before the current law expires at midnight on Saturday, Bush said.

"The time for debate is over," he said.

Doubtful they can work out the differences in the bills by the time the law expires, Democrats in the Senate and the House prepared short-term extensions that would keep the law in effect for several more weeks. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky blocked an extension attempt Tuesday. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said Republicans in the House would fight another extension.

"Congress has had over six months to discuss and deliberate," Bush said. "I will not accept any temporary extension. They have already been given a two-week extension."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said Tuesday he still opposes retroactive immunity.

"There is no basis for the broad telecommunications company amnesty provisions advocated by the administration," Conyers wrote in a letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding asking for documents about the wiretapping program. The documents have been withheld from Congress.

The 68-29 Senate vote Tuesday to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) belied the nearly two months of stops and starts and bitter political wrangling that preceded it. The two sides had battled to balance civil liberties with the need to conduct surveillance on potential adversaries.