FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - President George W. Bush urged Congress on Wednesday to expand the government’s domestic spying powers permanently or risk leaving the country vulnerable to another terrorist attack.
The Democratic-led Congress in August temporarily expanded the Bush administration’s authority to monitor phone calls, e-mails and other electronic communications between individuals in the United States and someone overseas suspected of terrorism ties, without obtaining court approval.
Critics warn the program could violate the civil liberties of law-abiding Americans if their private communications are scooped up by the surveillance net.
Bush said the 1978 law on surveillance was “dangerously out of date” and unable to deal with evolving technology such as disposable cell phones and the Internet. The law must be changed to give intelligence agencies the tools needed to prevent attacks on American soil, he said.
“Without these tools it’ll be harder to figure out what our enemies are doing to train, recruit and infiltrate operatives into America,” Bush said during a visit to the National Security Agency, which conducts surveillance of electronic communications on targets around the world.
“Without these tools, our country will be much more vulnerable to attack,” Bush added.
The expanded powers expire in February. Many Democrats are wary of renewing them permanently and want more safeguards included in future legislation.
“Today, the president continues to seek unchecked surveillance powers that many of us in Congress cannot support,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat.
“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,” he said.
Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who will testify at a House of Representatives hearing on the issue on Thursday, said “I have an open mind to some changes” to the current Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
But she opposed making the temporary expansion of powers approved in August permanent. “It basically guts the careful checks and balances in FISA,” she said.
The White House also wants retroactive liability protection for telecommunications firms that helped the government in the warrantless spying program and now face lawsuits. Some Democrats also support protection for the firms.
“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.
National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said at a congressional hearing this week that no Americans had been targeted for warrantless eavesdropping since he took over the job in February.
The debate over domestic spying was expected to surface in the confirmation hearings of retired federal Judge Michael Mukasey, who was nominated by Bush this week to replace Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.