February 17th, 2008 02:44 EST
Spying law still sags under weight of immunity fuss
By Scott Stearns
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
President Bush says opposition Democrats are putting the nation at risk by failing to pass a new wiretapping law so the government can monitor suspected terrorist communications without a court warrant. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, Democrats say there is no additional threat as surveillance orders under the law expiring Saturday are valid for another year.
President Bush says U.S. intelligence officials may lose a vital lead that could prevent a terrorist attack on America because they will lose the power to authorize new surveillance without court approval. In his weekly radio address, Mr. Bush says House Democrats are putting politics above protecting the nation by failing to pass new legislation that allows the government to monitor telephone and computer communications between people in the United States and suspected terrorist abroad without a warrant.
"Some congressional leaders claim that this will not affect our security. They are wrong," he said. "Because Congress failed to act, it will be harder for our government to keep you safe from terrorist attack."
House Democrats have raised concerns about protecting privacy rights and granting the retroactive immunity the president wants for telephone companies that have helped monitor those communications.
Without that immunity, Mr. Bush says U.S. intelligence gathering is at risk.
"By failing to act, Congress has created a question about whether private sector companies who assist in our efforts to defend you from the terrorists could be sued for doing the right thing," he added. "Now, these companies will be increasingly reluctant to provide this vital cooperation, because of their uncertainty about the law and fear of being sued by class-action trial lawyers."
Some 40 lawsuits are currently pending against telephone companies for allegedly violating wiretap laws by cooperating with the government.
In the Democratic party's radio address, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse says President Bush has chosen to manufacture an unnecessary confrontation with Congress instead of working with lawmakers in a calm, constructive way. "We Democrats urge the president to work with Congress to provide our intelligence professionals needed authorities while protecting the privacy of law-abiding Americans," he said.
Mr. Whitehouse says the president wants to force the House to adopt Senate eavesdropping legislation instead of resolving the differences between House and Senate bills through the usual process of a conference committee.
"We know this president dislikes compromise, but this time he has taken his stubborn approach too far," he added. "He is whipping up false fears and creating artificial confrontation."
Mr. Whitehouse says the president should drop his threat to veto a short extension of the surveillance law to allow Congress to finish its work.The senator says the law expiring Saturday does not - in reality - threaten the safety of Americans. He says the president is aware that existing surveillance orders remain in effect for one year. And any additional requests can be made through a secret court.
Congress has begun a 10-day recess.
President Bush recorded his radio address before leaving on a five-nation tour of Africa. He stopped in Benin Saturday before arriving here in Tanzania. Mr. Bush will also visit Rwanda, Ghana, and Liberia. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/02/20080216.html
[See SOP article, http://www.thesop.org/article.php?id=9800 Ed.]