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Bush Says Homeland Security Improved, Urges Immunity for IT Firms


President Bush marked the fifth anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security with a warning that terrorists are determined to attack again. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, Mr. Bush wants immunity for telecommunications firms that have helped the government listen-in on conversations with suspected terrorists.

President Bush told a gathering of Homeland Security staff that it is better to defeat terrorist threats abroad than to face them at home.

"At this moment, somewhere in the world, a terrorist is planning an attack on us," said President Bush. "I know that is an inconvenient thought for some. But it is the truth. And the people in this hall understand that truth. We have no greater responsibility, no greater charge than to stop our enemies and to protect our fellow citizens."

Mr. Bush spoke at an event marking the fifth anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, which combines 22 previously-separate agencies into a single organization meant to defend against and prepare to respond to terrorist attack.

The president says agency employees are better protecting the nation's computer network, its borders, and its food and water supplies. Homeland Security has also expanded America's stockpile of drugs and vaccines that might be needed in the event of a biological attack.

President Bush says one of the most important tools in protecting the nation is the ability to monitor communications between suspected terrorists.

He wants retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that complied with government requests to monitor telephone and computer traffic between the United States and suspected terrorists abroad without a court warrant.

Many of those firms are now facing civil lawsuits for their actions following the 2001 attacks. Mr. Bush says allowing those lawsuits to proceed would be unfair because those companies were told their assistance was legal and vital to national security.

"Litigation could lead to the disclosure of information about how we conduct surveillance and give al-Qaida and others a road map as to how to avoid the surveillance," said Mr. Bush. "Allowing these lawsuits to proceed would be dangerous because private companies besieged and fearful of lawsuits would be less willing to help us quickly get the information we need."

The Senate has approved retroactive immunity for telecommunications firms. That legislation is now awaiting action in the House of Representatives.

House Democrats say they object to the president attempting to broaden powers granted him under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which gave Congress the authority to decide the terms under which intelligence collection can take place.

President Bush says that law is out of date and does not allow intelligence agents to track foreign terrorists abroad quickly and effectively.

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