WASHINGTON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Democrats accused U.S. President Bush on Saturday of fanning terrorism fears shamelessly as he was about to lose certain authority to wiretap foreign suspects without a court warrant.
Bush, for his part, flailed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives for what he called putting U.S. security at risk for political motives in an election year.
The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, responding to a Republican blitz on the issue, said there should be no question in anyone’s mind that U.S. intelligence agencies retained the right to take “all actions necessary to protect” U.S. security.
“For anyone to suggest otherwise is irresponsible and totally inaccurate,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said in a joint statement.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, in the Democratic Party response to Bush’s weekly radio address, added, “We know this president dislikes compromise, but this time he has taken his stubborn approach too far.”
“He is whipping up false fears, and creating artificial confrontation,” said Whitehouse, a former federal prosecutor and Rhode Island attorney general who serves on the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees.
At issue is a temporary law passed in August that expanded warrantless surveillance powers. Bush, a Republican, wants Congress to make permanent the law, set to lapse at midnight Saturday.
He also wants to add legal immunity for telecommunications companies sued for invasion of privacy for aiding U.S. intelligence after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill to replace the expiring “Protect America Act” in line with Bush’s wishes. But House Democratic leaders refused to bring it up for a quick vote on Friday, largely over the question of retroactive immunity for telephone companies that provided private data without warrants. House members then adjourned for a 10-day recess.
Even after the law expires, the government’s legal surveillance ability remains undiminished until at least August, Democrats said.
Bush, in his weekly radio address taped before he left on a five-nation Africa tour on Friday, predicted companies will be increasingly reluctant to cooperate with U.S. intelligence agencies because of their uncertainty about the law and fear of being sued “by class-action trial lawyers.”
“Because Congress failed to act, it will be harder for our government to keep you safe from terrorist attack,” Bush said.
Bush had offered to delay his Africa trip if House Democratic leaders would stay to enact “a good bill.”
Instead, he said, “House leaders chose politics over protecting the country — and our country is at greater risk as a result.”
House Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said the country’s intelligence capacity is growing weaker by the day.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a separate statement, “This is not a political contest, it is a live-fire situation.” (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)