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Bush urges House to pass surveillance bill with telecom immunity backed by Senate

[JURIST] US President George W. Bush Wednesday urged [statement; fact sheet] the House of Representatives to immediately pass the version of the FISA Amendments Act [S 2248 materials] passed by the Senate this week. The US Senate voted 68-29 [JURIST report] Tuesday to pass the legislation, which is intended to "modernize" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and replace the temporary Protect America Act [S 1927 materials; JURIST report], currently set to expire February 15. The version approved by the Senate would provide immunity for telecommunications companies [JURIST report] from lawsuits related to their participation in the NSA warrantless surveillance program [JURIST news archive]. The House version [HR 3773 materials] of the legislation, approved [JURIST report] in November, does not include the immunity provisions. Bush said Wednesday:

I am pleased that last night, Senators approved new legislation that will ensure our intelligence professionals have the tools they need to make us safer -- and they did so by a wide, bipartisan majority. The Senate bill also provides fair and just liability protections for companies that did the right thing and assisted in defending America after the attacks of September the 11th.

In order to be able to discover enemy -- the enemy's plans, we need the cooperation of telecommunication companies. If these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won't participate; they won't help us; they won't help protect America. Liability protection is critical to securing the private sector's cooperation with our intelligence efforts. The Senate has passed a good bill, and has shown that protecting our nation is not a partisan issue. And I congratulate the senators.

Unfortunately, the House has failed to pass a good bill. And now House leaders say they want still more time to reach agreement with the Senate on a final bill. They make this claim even though it is clear that the Senate bill, the bill passed last night, has significant bipartisan support in the House.

Congress has had over six months to discuss and deliberate. The time for debate is over. I will not accept any temporary extension. House members have had plenty of time to pass a good bill. They have already been given a two-week extension beyond the deadline they set for themselves. If Republicans and Democrats in the Senate can come together on a good piece of legislation, there is no reason why Republicans and Democrats in the House cannot pass the Senate bill immediately.

The House's failure to pass the bipartisan Senate bill would jeopardize the security of our citizens. As Director [of National Intelligence Mike] McConnell has told me, without this law, our ability to prevent new attacks will be weakened. And it will become harder for us to uncover terrorist plots. We must not allow this to happen. It is time for Congress to ensure the flow of vital intelligence is not disrupted. It is time for Congress to pass a law that provides a long-term foundation to protect our country. And they must do so immediately.
Congress has mulled the controversial issue of telecom immunity while working on long-term legislation to "modernize" the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) [text]; the Bush administration has indicated it will veto [JURIST report] any legislation passed without a telecom liability protection. On Tuesday, the Senate approved by voice vote an increase in the power of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) [official backgrounder] to monitor the government's eavesdropping on American citizens. Current law allows the US government to eavesdrop inside of the US without court approval as long as one end of a conversation is reasonably perceived to have been outside of the US; the amendment will extend the court order requirement to Americans located overseas. AP has more.

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