Bush: What we asked telecoms to do was legal
President Bush continued Monday to press for Congress to retroactively excuse alleged lawbreaking by the nation's telecommunications companies, and he repeated questionable allegations that Democrats' refusal to pass a surveillance law has endangered the country.
Although he previously admitted that America's telcos helped the government eavesdrop on its citizens, Bush returned to referencing companies "believed to have assisted" his warrantless wiretapping program when he spoke from the White House Monday. He did insist, though, that whatever the government required the companies to do was within the law.
"Our government told them that their participation was necessary, and it was and still is," Bush said. "What we asked them to do was legal, and now they're getting sued for billions of dollars."
Telephone and Internet providers like AT&T, Verizon and SBC are facing about 40 lawsuits from customers who say their privacy was violated as part of Bush's "Terrorist Surveillance Program" he says began after 9/11. Only if they are found to have violated privacy laws would these companies face the "billions of dollars" in penalties Bush warned against.
The House allowed a temporary expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expire earlier this month because of an immunity provision included in a permanent measure they were asked to approve. Bush has claimed the expiration of that bill, the Protect America Act, has weakened the country's intelligence infrastructure, although he promised to veto any measure without telecom immunity.
"To put it bluntly, if the enemy is calling into America, we really need to know what they're saying, and we need to know what they're thinking, and we need to know who they're talking to," Bush said before a meeting with governors from across the US Monday.
Democratic leaders hit back at what they said were Bush's "scare tactics and political games," in a Washington Post op-ed Monday.
"First, our country did not "go dark" on Feb. 16 when the Protect America Act (PAA) expired. Despite President Bush's overheated rhetoric on this issue, the government's orders under that act will last until at least August. These orders could cover every known terrorist group and foreign target. No surveillance stopped. If a new member of a known group, a new phone number or a new e-mail address is identified, U.S. intelligence can add it to the existing orders, and surveillance can begin immediately," wrote Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Reps. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) and John Conyers (D-MI).
The four lawmakers, who chair the judiciary and intelligence committees in the House and Senate, said FISA is plenty powerful enough to keep the country safe. The accused Bush of employing "'sky is falling' rhetoric" to distract voters.
"But if our nation were to suddenly become vulnerable, it would not be because we don't have sufficient domestic surveillance powers," they wrote. "It would be because the Bush administration has done too little to defeat al-Qaeda, which has reconstituted itself in Pakistan and gained strength throughout the world. Many of our intelligence assets are being used to fight in Iraq instead of taking on Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organization that attacked us on Sept. 11 and that wants to attack us again."
This video is from CNN's Newsroom, broadcast February 24, 2008.