- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

President Bush threatened to veto the latest House version of an update to foreign surveillance law, as the chamber’s members last night held their first “secret session” since 1983 and only their sixth since the end of the War of 1812 to hash out the issue.

Mr. Bush said the Democrats’ bill would “make our country less safe.” A vote is expected today after an open debate.

The House went into secret session last night, at the behest of Republicans who wanted to speak more freely about the nature of intelligence threats and to explain past cooperation by telecommunications companies with the government. The House often held such sessions in the republic’s early years, but before yesterday there had been only five since 1815.

The White House is seeking legal immunity for these telecom companies, which is a major sticking point for Democrats.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, agreed to the unusual session and overcame initial resistance to it from members of his party, such as Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, who said the term “secret session … sounds ominous.”

“We walk a very delicate balance this evening. Let us hope that we walk it right,” Rep. David Scott, Georgia Democrat, said moments before agreeing to drop his objection to the session.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, argued that the session was “necessary so that we can have an honest debate about this critical national security program.”

“Democratic leaders consistently cite a lack of access to classified information as their reasoning for not acting responsibly and passing the Senate bill,” Mr. Boehner said. “Democratic leaders cannot hide behind these excuses any longer.”

Democrats who had been briefed on classified details of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by the White House and intelligence officials were skeptical of the session.

“My colleagues who joined me in the hearings and reviewed the administration’s documents have walked away with an inescapable conclusion: The administration has not made the case for unprecedented spying powers and blanket retroactive immunity for phone companies,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat.

“Whether this is a worthwhile exercise or mere grandstanding depends on whether Republicans have groundbreaking new information that would affect the legislative process,” Mr. Conyers said. “I have my doubts.”

In addition to immunity for telecoms, the Bush administration wants Congress to remove due process rights for surveillance targets overseas that have crept into the law unintentionally because of changes in communication technology.

The Senate acquiesced last month to these demands, passing the bill by a vote of 68-29, but the House refused to pass the measure.

House Democratic leaders insist that telecom companies be liable to lawsuits, that intelligence activities be probed and that surveillance of targets outside the U.S. be subject to the same judicial review that protects Americans.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, voted against the bill. He said the president was trying to “bully the Congress and mislead the American people.”

“The president wants Congress to pretend that his administration did not conduct a massive, illegal, domestic warrantless surveillance program that was one of the most outrageous abuses of executive power in our nation’s history,” Mr. Kennedy said.

SECRET SESSIONS

These are the five occasions, before last night, since 1825 in which the House went into secret session.

Dec. 27, 1825: To receive a confidential message from the president regarding relations with Indian tribes

May 27, 1830: To receive a confidential message from the president on a bill regulating trade between the U.S. and Britain

June 20, 1979: Implementing legislation on the Panama Canal Act of 1979

Feb. 25, 1980: Involvement of Cuba and other Communist-bloc countries in Nicaragua

July 19, 1983: U.S. support for anti-Communist “contras” in Nicaragua

Source: Office of House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican

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