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Bush ups pressure on House to pass intelligence bill

  • Story Highlights
  • President Bush says House needs to "vote up or down" on update to FISA bill
  • Telecommunications companies seeking immunity from lawsuits over surveillance
  • Senate version includes immunity for companies; House version does not
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Monday urged the House of Representatives to vote on an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, saying, "If the enemy is calling to America, we really need to know what they're saying."

President Bush secretly instituted the National Security Agency's domestic spying program after 9/11.

A temporary update to FISA permitting the intelligence community to conduct surveillance on foreigners without a warrant expired more than a week ago.

Bush has been pressing Congress to pass a permanent update to FISA, arguing that its delayed passage hurts national security.

Democrats have said the existing 1978 FISA law gives the government all the authority it needs to carry out surveillance and that passage of the final bill can wait until the House and Senate reconcile their differences.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would allow U.S. intelligence to tap into phone and Internet traffic overseas without obtaining a judge's warrant, even if the calls were routed through communications centers in the United States. Video Watch as the president urges an update in his weekly radio address »

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But the Senate version contains a controversial measure that grants legal immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the warrantless wiretapping program Bush acknowledged in 2005. The immunity would apply retroactively.

Critics said the program violated the law, and phone and Internet companies face as many as 40 lawsuits related to their participation. The House has balked at passing the immunity measure.

"It was a very strong bipartisan bill that passed the Senate, and it's a bill that we can live with ... and it's a bill that should be put on the House floor for a vote up or down," Bush told the National Governors Association meeting at the White House.

Bush stressed the economic impact that telecommunications companies could face if an update of the bill is not passed.

"The problem is, should companies who are believed to have helped us after 9/11 until today get information necessary to protect the country be sued? My answer is absolutely not. They shouldn't be sued."

Bush said the threat of lawsuits would create doubt among private-sector "folks who we need to help protect us" and would make it harder to convince these companies to participate in the future.

On Friday, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell and Attorney General Michael Mukasey sent a formal letter to the House Intelligence Committee saying the House's failure to pass the Senate bill has harmed the country.

"Our experience in the past few days since the expiration of the act demonstrates that these concerns are neither speculative nor theoretical: allowing the act to expire without passing the bipartisan Senate bill has had real and negative consequences for our national security," the two said in the letter.

But on Saturday McConnell appeared to backtrack, saying that new surveillance could begin without the legislation.

"We learned last night after sending this letter that, as a result of these efforts, new surveillances under existing directives issued pursuant to the Protect America Act will resume, at least for now," McConnell said.


The Protect America Act was the name of the temporary fix to FISA that was passed last summer.

"Unfortunately, the delay resulting from this discussion impaired our ability to cover foreign intelligence targets, which resulted in missed intelligence information," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Ed Hornick, Brianna Keilar and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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