President Bush plunged directly into the campaign to save his warrantless wiretapping program, arguing Wednesday that telecommunications firms that cooperated with spy agencies should be granted retroactive immunity from possible prosecution.
Bush also urged Congress to pass a permanent revision of legislation that gave the program a six-month lifespan.
His comments came as he toured the national Threat Operations Center at the ultra-secret National Security Agency at Ft. Meade, Md.
“The need for action is clear,” Bush said. “Unless the reforms in the act are made permanent, our national security professionals will lose critical tools they need to protect our country.”
Bush argued that telecommunications companies that provided data to the government under the program should be granted immunity from prosecution in the event that their actions are determined to have been illegal.
Rights advocates have filed dozens of lawsuits against telecommunications companies for assisting the government.
“It’s particularly important for Congress to provide meaningful liability protection to those companies now facing multibillion-dollar lawsuits only because they are believed to have assisted in efforts to defend our nation following the 9/11 attacks,” Bush said.
It is not clear how much personal information the companies may have provided the government under the warrantless surveillance program, or how many Americans may have been affected.
Terrorism has become a favorite topic for the administration in recent weeks.
In part that is because of heightened rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates and in part because it provides the president -- whose popularity has plummeted -- with one of his few levers of influence on lawmakers.
But Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution expert on relations between Congress and the White House, said that even terrorism may not be a winning topic for the president and his party anymore.
“Nothing works these days for the Republicans,” Mann said. “They can’t get any traction even on issues on which the public leans in their direction. A very unpopular war, disenchantment with the president, an image of incompetence in managing the tools of government, and scandal have poisoned the well.”
Under pressure from the administration, Congress hastily passed a bill in August that revised the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize the wiretapping program for a six-month period.
Democrats already are in the process of rewriting that legislation, which many in the party say gave the administration too much leeway to spy on Americans.
Democrats indicated that they intended to tighten the reins as soon as they could.
“We strongly agree that intelligence tools should be modern,” said Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), House Intelligence Committee chairman. “However, the president’s bill could allow for broad surveillance on Americans without a warrant -- and the Constitution does not allow for that.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) added: “The president needs to step up to the plate and show that he is willing to work with Congress to get this important legislation passed. Political speeches deriding Democrats will not help get us closer to that goal.”
J. Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, is scheduled to meet today with House and Senate intelligence committees.
The administration pressed Congress to pass the legislation last summer because of a ruling by a secret national security court that the administration program, which White House officials insist does not target Americans, did not comply with the foreign intelligence surveillance law. The law requires the government to obtain a warrant before conducting national security surveillance on any American.
Administration officials claimed the court ruling shut down a crucial flow of intelligence and urged Congress to pass the law in the final days before a summer recess.
Democrats, worried that voters believe they are not tough enough on terrorists, complied.
But since then, Democrats and their allies outside government have said the law could be used to authorize a wide variety of surveillance activities on Americans, including warrantless searches of homes and documents.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino dismissed the fears. “It’s not being used that way,” she insisted.