WASHINGTON - President Bush lobbied again yesterday for an intelligence law allowing government eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails, as the tone of the dispute between the White House and Congress over terrorist surveillance grew increasingly sharp.
"To put it bluntly, if the enemy is calling into America, we really need to know what they're saying, and we need to know what they're thinking, and we need to know who they're talking to," Bush said at the start of his annual meeting with the nation's governors at the White House.
"This is a different kind of struggle than we've ever faced before. It's essential that we understand the mentality of these killers," Bush said.
The law in question targets foreign terrorist threats and allows eavesdropping on communications involving people in the United States, as long as those people are not the intended focus or target of the surveillance. The latest version of the legislation expired on Feb. 16, and the rules reverted to those outlined in the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Bush and Congress are at odds over whether to give legal immunity to companies that in the past helped the government spy on customers without court warrants.
Bush wants the House to act on legislation the Senate has passed. That bill provides retroactive protection for telecommunications companies that wiretapped US phone and computer lines at the government's request after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, without court permission.
The House version does not provide such immunity.
"Our government told them that their participation was necessary," Bush said. "And it was, and it still is, and that what we had asked them to do was legal. And now they're getting sued for billions of dollars. And it's not fair."
The president's pitch was the latest installment in a long and increasingly sharply worded debate between Bush and congressional Democrats.
In an op-ed piece yesterday in The
"It is clear that he and his Republican allies, desperate to distract attention from the economy and other policy failures, are trying to use this issue to scare the American people into believing that congressional Democrats have left America vulnerable to terrorist attack," said the article.
The piece was signed by Democratic senators Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Democratic representatives Silvestre Reyes of Texas, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
White House press secretary Dana Perino responded to their op-ed piece with her own statement. Perino said that Bush is not using scare tactics, but instead repeating the concerns of the intelligence community about the risks to the nation. "Unless this threat is taken more seriously in Congress, the ability to obtain the intelligence we need will be at risk, and with it our national security," Perino said.
Later, speaking to reporters, Perino said the Democrats' use of the phrase scare tactics must "be like one of their favorite words - it must poll very well, because they use it almost every time. What we have done is state facts."
The Justice Department and Office of National Intelligence said Saturday that telecommunication companies are now complying with existing surveillance warrants. The agencies also said that new surveillance activities under existing warrants will resume for now, but that the delay "impaired our ability to cover foreign intelligence targets, which resulted in missed intelligence information."
Bush says that telecommunications will not help the government if they do not have protection from lawsuits, and that he will not compromise with Democrats on that point.