(AFP) – Feb 14, 2008
WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President George W. Bush and Democratic lawmakers dug in their heels in a high-stakes showdown over a controversial wiretap law that is set to expire on Friday.
Bush warned the Democratic-led House of Representatives on Thursday that he was ready to delay his trip to Africa on Friday to ensure the bill, which he considers a crucial weapon against terrorism, passes the lower chamber.
But House Democrats have refused to rubber stamp a version of the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday and would both make the law permanent and provide legal immunity to telecommunication firms who assist in the wiretaps, which critics say go against US privacy laws.
"The lives of countless Americans depend on our ability to monitor terrorist communications," Bush said in a news conference.
"Our intelligence professionals are working day and night to keep us safe, and they're waiting to see whether Congress will give them the tools they need to succeed or tie their hands by failing to act," he said.
Bush also took on the Senate as he vowed in a BBC interview to veto a bill that would bar the CIA from using harsh interrogation tactics including waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique denounced by rights groups as torture.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop, without court warrants, on calls and emails between the United States and abroad in cases deemed to have a terror link.
Since it was leaked to the media in 2005, the program has been denounced by civil liberties groups as violating protections of the private communications of US citizens from wiretaps not first authorized by courts.
Pushed by the White House, last year Congress passed legislation temporarily authorizing warrentless wiretaps.
That authorization expires at the end of the day on Friday, and the White House has demanded Congress make it permanent and grant telecommunications firms which helped the NSA wiretaps retroactive and forward immunity.
While the Senate voted to make it permanent Tuesday, House Democrats are opposed to a provision for blanket immunity to telecommunication firms facing lawsuits for cooperating in the wiretapping program.
The House failed to agree Wednesday to make another temporary extension to the law to continue to seek a compromise.
On Thursday, Democrats ramped up their defiance as the House voted to hold two Bush confidants in contempt for ignoring subpoenas to testify to a committee about a scandal regarding the firing of prosecutors in 2006.
The move angered Bush's Republicans, who walked out of the chamber in protest and boycotted the vote.
"We will not stand here and watch this floor be abused for pure political grandstanding at the expense of our national security," House Minority Leader John Boehner said as he led his peers out of the chamber.
The House voted 223-32 to hold White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former Bush counselor Harriet Miers in contempt of Congress, a move quickly denounced by the administration as a waste of time.
"The Justice Department will not ask the United States Attorney to follow through on the contempt charges," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino warned even before the vote.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to Bush Thursday afternoon warning the president he would be responsible if the wiretap law expired.
"I regret your reckless attempt to manufacture a crisis over the reauthorization of foreign surveillance laws," Reid wrote, insisting that intelligence services still could carry out their work without the law.
"Instead of needlessly frightening the country, you should work with Congress in a calm, constructive way to provide our intelligence professionals with all needed tools while respecting the privacy of law-abiding Americans," he said.
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