WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. lawmakers defied President George W. Bush on Thursday and moved ahead with an anti-terror spy bill that allows lawsuits against telephone companies that participated in his warrantless surveillance program after the September 11 attacks.
As the Democratic-led House of Representatives prepared to vote on the measure on Thursday, Bush denounced it as inadequate and urged the chamber to pass the Senate version of the bill, saying these companies deserved praise, not punishment.
About 40 civil suits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans swept up in the electronic surveillance of phone calls and e-mails.
“This litigation would undermine the private sector’s willingness to cooperate with the intelligence community, cooperation that is absolutely essential to protecting our country from harm,” Bush said at the White House.
“The House bill could reopen dangerous intelligence gaps by putting in place a cumbersome court approval process that would make it harder to collect intelligence on foreign terrorists,” he added.
Bush said, “The House leaders know that the Senate will not pass it. And even if the Senate did pass it, they know I will veto it.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, brushed off Bush’s complaints.
“He knows that our bill protects the American people and we all understand our responsibilities to do that,” Pelosi told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Bush’s demand for immunity for the phone companies has been a major stumbling block in getting the Senate and House to agree on a bill to replace a temporary law that expired last month that had expanded the power of U.S. authorities to track enemy targets without a court order.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation giving the phone companies immunity. But House Democratic leaders have refused to include immunity in their version of the measure.
While the House bill would not grant immunity, it would allow phone companies to present their defense in a closed-door U.S. district court, with the judge given access to confidential documents about the surveillance program.
“I think that is the proper way to decide whether they should have immunity or not — not members of Congress’ voting on it,” Pelosi said.
Democrats agreed to a request by Republicans to hold a closed-door session of the House to discuss Republican complaints that the measure could damage U.S. surveillance. It would be the first such secret House session since 1983.
Republican leaders “believe they have information relevant to the debate on FISA that cannot be publicly discussed,” said House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer.
The House bill would revamp the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires the government receive secret-court approval to conduct electronic surveillance on foreign targets in the United States.
The Democratic measure would expand U.S. spy power but not as much as the administration has demanded. It would also increase congressional and judicial oversight.
Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Bush authorized warrantless surveillance. Critics charged he broke the law. Bush said he had the war-time power to do it. He later put the program under FISA court supervision. Terms remain secret.
With questioning swirling about Bush’s warrantless program, the House bill would create a commission to investigate it.
Bush denounced that proposal, noting congressional panels have already held numerous hearings on his administration’s surveillance activities.
Editing by David Alexander and John O'Callaghan