WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House threatened to veto wiretap legislation a day before Wednesday’s planned vote in Congress, and said that restrictions on government authority would hamper its fight against terrorism.
The measure “falls far short of providing the intelligence community with the tools it needs to collect foreign intelligence effectively from individuals outside the United States,” the White House budget office said on Tuesday.
It said National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell and other advisers would recommend that President George W. Bush veto the bill if passed in its current form.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is due to vote on the legislation on Wednesday. It would set rules for the warrantless surveillance of foreigners and safeguards over the rights of Americans in their international conversations.
The bill is intended as a successor to temporary legislation the Bush administration pushed through in August as urgently needed to plug legal gaps that were creating unnecessary obstacles in terrorism probes under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
But many Democrats say that the temporary law, which expires in February, gave the government too much power to listen in on the calls of innocent Americans.
The legislation being considered by the House would give authorities the tools they need while protecting the constitutional rights of Americans, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters.
“One of the principle tenets of the Constitution ... was to ensure that King George cannot listen in, come into their homes without probable cause,” Hoyer said.
The White House has begun to mount a publicity campaign against the House bill.
It charged in its veto threat that the bill places “complex restrictions” on the kinds of intelligence that can be collected, and establishes burdensome processes for court-approval and oversight that could hamper efforts.
A major clash point is the House Democrats’ refusal to grant telecommunications firms retroactive immunity from invasion-of-privacy suits over any participation in a secret warrantless surveillance program launched by Bush after the September 11 attacks.
The White House said the immunity is critical to winning future cooperation from phone companies. For instance, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, sued telephone giant AT&T Inc last year and accused it of illegally allowing the government to monitor phone calls and e-mails.
But Democrats say they will not consider such protections until the Bush administration gives them details about past cooperation.
The Senate is to begin work on its version of the legislation this week and some congressional aides have said that body may be more inclined to grant retroactive immunity.
Democrats in the 100-member Senate may need to do so in order to attract enough of Bush’s fellow Republicans to muster 60 votes and clear an anticipated procedural hurdle.
The White House said the Bush administration was prepared to work with Congress on a bill “that would strengthen the nation’s intelligence capabilities while respecting the constitutional rights of Americans, so that the President can sign such a bill into law.”