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Impasse on wiretaps endangers U.S., Bush says

Times Staff Writer

President Bush warned Friday that the United States was in “more danger of attack” because Congress failed to extend a domestic wiretapping law, while House Democrats said Bush had manufactured the impasse by threatening to veto a short-term extension.

“American citizens must understand, clearly understand, that there still is a threat on the homeland,” Bush said after meeting with Republican congressional leaders. Noting that the Senate had passed a bill extending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s warrantless domestic wiretapping, Bush said House Democrats -- protesting protections for phone carriers from privacy lawsuits -- had blocked it.

“By blocking this piece of legislation, our country is more in danger of an attack,” he said. “By not giving the professionals the tools they need, it’s going to be a lot harder to do the job we need to be able to defend America.”

Temporary provisions in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are set to expire this weekend, but Democrats -- dismissing Bush’s offer to delay a six-day trip to Africa in hopes of winning a legislative compromise -- argued that the basic law remained in effect. “He knows that the underlying ‘intelligence’ law and the power given to him in the Protect America Act give him sufficient authority to do all of the surveillance and collecting that he needs to do in order to protect the American people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Thursday.

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With Congress now in recess for the Presidents Day holiday, Bush urged lawmakers to tackle the issue on their return.

“When they come back from that 12-day recess, the House leaders must understand that the decision they made to block the legislation has made it harder for us to protect the American people,” he said. “We expect them to get a good bill to my desk -- this is the Senate bill -- as soon as possible.”

Asked to respond to Bush’s charge that Democrats were imperiling the nation’s security, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) accused the president of “fear-mongering.”

“After refusing to extend current law, the president repeated today his untenable and irresponsible claim that our national security will be jeopardized unless the House immediately rubber-stamps a Senate bill,” Hoyer said Friday. “In fact, a wide range of national security experts has made clear that the president and the intelligence community have all the tools they need to protect our nation.”

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House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) defended seeking telecommunications companies’ immunity from lawsuits. “The carriers that work with our government are increasingly concerned about their liability and increasingly concerned about whether they are going to continue to work with our intelligence officials,” he said.

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johanna.neuman@ latimes.com


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