WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defying President George W. Bush, Democrats voted on Wednesday to bolster civil liberties safeguards in his anti-terrorism spying program and refused to shield phone companies from pending lawsuits.
Just hours after Bush warned Democrats they would be rolling back efforts to protect the United States, the House of Representatives Judiciary and Intelligence committees approved legislation to ensure congressional and court oversight of the surveillance of suspected enemy targets.
The party-line votes by the two panels were 20-14 and 12-7, respectively.
The full House is to consider the bill next week. The Senate Intelligence Committee plans to begin work on its version next Thursday.
House Democrats rejected a bid by Bush’s fellow Republicans to provide retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated in the president’s warrantless spying program secretly begun shortly after the September 11 attacks.
Bush insisted the new bill “must grant liability protection to companies who are facing multibillion dollar lawsuits only because they are believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend our nation.”
Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan replied: “The president’s remarks today raise further questions about how the administration might have pressured or induced telecommunications companies to participate.”
House Democrats say they will not consider retroactive immunity unless the White House hands over records of detailing what the companies did. The House bill would protect the firms from future lawsuits, but not from pending ones.
It also would revise and replace a temporary surveillance measure, the Protect America Act, that Bush pushed through the Democrat-led Congress in August amid warnings that the United States faced new threats.
That earlier measure expanded the federal warrantless surveillance authority and closed what the administration said was a dangerous legal gap.
The new House bill would require the administration to obtain one-year “blanket warrants” from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor telephone calls or e-mails of suspected terrorists when they involve an American citizen.
It would not require individual warrants to listen in on Americans communicating with suspected terrorists, unless the U.S. citizen is also a specific target of the surveillance. No warrant would be needed to monitor foreign suspects speaking to each other overseas.
“The legislation before us today seeks to once again strike the appropriate balance between needed government authority and our precious rights and liberties,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.
Bush warned the new measure “would take us backward.”
“The Protect America Act is a vital tool in stopping the terrorists, and it would be a grave mistake for Congress to weaken this tool,” he said.
Critics say the warrantless surveillance program begun after the September 11 attacks was unlawful. The White House maintains Bush acted within his authority.
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.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ken Wainstein said the administration is also concerned about restrictions the bill would impose on the type of intelligence that could be collected, and a provision that would have the surveillance authority expire in 2009, the year Bush leaves office.
Bush wants the Protect America Act, set to expire in February, made permanent.