WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush pushed for approval by Congress on Saturday of the temporary expansion of his power to conduct electronic surveillance without a court order.
Bush hailed the Senate for passing the bill, denounced as excessive by civil liberties groups, which would allow eavesdropping on communications between U.S. residents and people abroad. He urged the House of Representatives to provide needed concurrence before lawmakers begin a monthlong recess.
But it was not immediately clear if the Democratic-led House would approve the Senate measure or try again to pass a bill rejected by Republicans on Friday. The Democratic bill would have expanded the electronic surveillance program, but also required greater court scrutiny.
“We’re looking at our options,” a Democratic aide said. Another said, “Likely we will pass it (the Senate bill),” but party leaders were planning their course of action as many lawmakers packed up to go home.
Bush, whose administration has warned of continuing threats in the wake of the September 11 attacks, has called on Congress to remain in session until the House and Senate agree on a bill that he could sign into law.
“Protecting America is our most solemn obligation,” said Bush, whose administration has stepped up warnings in recent weeks of threats against the United States.
The American Civil Liberties Union said lawmakers were bowing to White House pressure with the bill it said would provide no protections for Americans communicating with people abroad.
“We are deeply disappointed that the president’s tactics of fear-mongering have once again forced the Congress into submission,” said Anthony Romero, ACLU executive director.
The Senate-passed bill would authorize the National Security Agency to intercept without a court order communications between people in the United States and foreign targets overseas.
The administration would have to submit to a secret court a description of the procedures they used to determine that warrantless surveillance only targeted people outside of the United States.
The court, created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, would review the procedures and order changes, if needed. The administration could appeal.
FISA now requires the government to obtain orders from its court to conduct surveillance of suspected terrorists in the United States.
But after the September 11 attacks, Bush authorized warrantless interception of communications between people in the United States and others overseas if one had suspected terrorist ties. Critics charged that program violated FISA, but Bush argued he had wartime powers to do so.
In January, Bush put the program under the supervision of the FISA court, but the terms have not been made public. Congress has subpoenaed documents in an effort to determine Bush’s legal justification for the warrantless surveillance.
The measure is to expire in six months, and Congress is to come up with permanent legislation in the meantime.
The Senate bill was needed, aides said, because of restrictions recently imposed by the FISA court on the ability of spy agencies to intercept communications.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who broke ranks with many fellow Democrats to vote for the measure, said: “The intelligence community is deeply concerned that chatter among suspected terrorist networks is up.”
“I am concerned as well,” Feinstein said. “We are living in a period of heightened vulnerability and must give the intelligence community the tools they need.”