Friday, February 15, 2008

House Democrats yesterday refused to revisit an update of the nation’s domestic wiretapping rules before they expire tomorrow at midnight, causing Republicans to storm out of the chamber in protest.

The dispute has led both Democratic and Republican leaders to accuse one another of playing political games with national security.

Republicans said it was a “disgrace” that Democrats decided to call a vote on contempt charges against White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers in the 2006 firings of U.S. attorneys instead of addressing the surveillance measure.

“We have space on the calendar today for a politically charged fishing expedition, but no space for a bill that would protect the American people from terrorists who want to kill us,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

But House Democrats, who control the chamber, say they would rather let the surveillance law lapse without replacement legislation than rush through a bill at the last minute on such an important issue.

“Democrats have made it abundantly clear that we are prepared to sit down with the White House and Republicans to work together,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “But we will not succumb to divisiveness and fear-mongering.”

The House passed the contempt measure by a vote of 223-32, setting up a possible legal showdown with the Bush administration. The White House says the roles of Mr. Bolten and Miss Miers in the attorney firings are protected under executive privilege. Democrats disagree, saying the president is constitutionally bound to allow the two to testify as part of a congressional inquiry.

The House on Wednesday rejected a Democratic proposal for a 21-day extension of a law that temporarily updated the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Thirty-four Democrats, including members of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, voted against the measure. No Republicans voted yes.

President Bush, who had threatened to veto an extension of the surveillance laws, yesterday threatened to cancel a scheduled trip to Africa unless House Democrats continued working on a permanent fix to the FISA rules. The House today is scheduled to begin its February recess and won’t return to work until Feb. 25.

The biggest dispute in updating FISA is a Republican demand to give telecommunications companies legal immunity for their participation in a domestic spying program the president began shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The secret program circumvented a court that oversees such activities.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T, Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp. of violating privacy rights while participating in the program.

Republicans and Mr. Bush, who supports a Senate bill passed Tuesday that includes the immunity provision, say phone companies should not be penalized for helping defend the nation against terrorism. Civil liberties activists and many Democrats say Mr. Bush’s program was unconstitutional because warrants weren’t required.

Congress in August passed a six-month FISA extension after lawmakers failed to reach a compromise on the immunity provision. The extension was to expire Feb. 1, but Congress last month agreed to another 15-day extension.

Republicans say any further extensions will cause telecommunication companies to hesitate in cooperating with intelligence officials, thus compromising national security.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the Democrats’ foot-dragging already “has started to have an impact on our intelligence gathering ability.”

“There are people out there in the real world that are trying to keep us safe from the threat from radical jihadists that are just wondering what their status will be and how they will be treated by a U.S. government in the future, and they are just very hesitant,” Mr. Hoekstra told The Washington Times on Tuesday.

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, in a joint Feb. 5 letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, warned that allowing the FISA extension to expire “would result in a degradation of critical tools necessary to carry out our national security mission.”

“Without these authorities, there is significant doubt surrounding the future of aspects of our operations,” they said.

But Democrats disagree, saying that the even if the extension law expires, intelligence officials and the Bush administration will have sufficient authority to continue vital intelligence gathering.

“President Bush is making the absolutely untenable claim that our national security will be jeopardized unless Congress immediately acts on the Senate bill,” Mr. Hoyer said. But “if the president and Republicans really believe their own rhetoric, then their actions are grossly irresponsible.”

The 1978 FISA law requires the government to obtain a warrant from a special court to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance in the U.S. But changes in telecommunications technology have forced the government to sometimes obtain warrants to spy abroad, because foreign phone calls and other electronic communications now often travel through U.S. networks.

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