WASHINGTON — President Bush, at loggerheads with House Democrats over how closely the government can eavesdrop on U.S. citizens, warned Wednesday that terrorists were planning fresh assaults that would make the Sept. 11 attacks "pale by comparison."
Bush called on the image of planes crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 as he pressured lawmakers to rewrite the intelligence rules governing how phone calls and e-mails are monitored for terrorist activity. Democrats and others fear the changes Bush and his Republican allies support would unduly encroach on civil liberties.
The House is considering the Senate version of the bill that Bush favors, one that includes retroactive protection from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that cooperated with government eavesdropping following the Sept. 11 attacks. The House bill does not provide telecom immunity.
Rather than wait for the House and Senate to negotiate differences in their versions of the intelligence legislation, Bush wants a rubber-stamp of the Senate bill so he can sign it into law immediately. The current law expires at midnight Saturday, and Bush said he wouldn't approve another extension. The House wouldn't either _ Republicans led a 229-191 vote turning down a 21-day extension.
"At this moment, somewhere in the world, terrorists are planning new attacks on our country," the president said. "Their goal is to bring destruction to our shores that will make September the 11th pale by comparison."
About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecom companies by people alleging violations of wiretapping and privacy laws.
"In order to be able to discover ... the enemy's plans, we need the cooperation of telecommunication companies," Bush said. "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."
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington, accused Bush of "fear mongering," and she urged the House not to pass the Senate bill. The ACLU is particularly opposed to the Senate bill's immunity to phone companies.
"The people whose private phone calls and e-mails were turned over deserve to have their day in court against the phone companies. Let the American system of justice decide this case," Fredrickson said.
The 68-29 Senate vote Tuesday to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act 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.
While giving the White House what it wanted on immunity for the phone companies, the Senate also expanded the power of the court to oversee government eavesdropping on Americans. An amendment would give the FISA court the authority to monitor whether the government is complying with procedures designed to protect the privacy of innocent Americans whose telephone or computer communications are captured during surveillance of a foreign target.
The Senate bill would also require FISA court orders to eavesdrop on Americans who are overseas. Under current law, the government can wiretap or search the possessions of anyone outside the United States _ even a soldier serving overseas _ without court permission if it believes the person may be a foreign agent.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused the president and Senate Republicans of being more interested in politicizing intelligence than resolving the debate. Reid said the issue would not even be before Congress if Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, "in their unyielding efforts to expand presidential powers," had not created a system to conduct wiretapping, including on U.S. citizens, outside the bounds of federal law.
"The president could have taken the simple step of requesting new authority from Congress ... but whether out of convenience, incompetence, or outright disdain for the rule of law, the administration chose to ignore Congress and ignore the Constitution," Reid said.
Reid said if the president chooses to veto a short-term extension, he, not Congress, will have to take the blame for any gaps in collecting intelligence of terrorists' communications.
Expiration of the current Protect America Act would not mean an immediate end to wiretapping. Existing surveillance could continue under the law for a year from when it began _ at least until August. Any new surveillance the government wants to institute could be implemented under underlying FISA rules, which may require warrants from the secret court.