President Bush is urging the U.S. Congress to permanently extend a law that enables the government to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports Mr. Bush made the case for action during a visit to the top-secret National Security Agency near Washington.
President Bush says the law gives the intelligence community the tools it needs to keep the American people safe.
"At stake in this debate is more than a piece of legislation. The decisions Congress makes will directly affect the ability to save American lives," he said.
The law in question is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It was written 30 years ago, long before the advent of cellphones and the Internet.
The Bush administration has been pushing for permanent reforms, including provisions that permit wiretaps on conversations and e-mails between people in the United States and terror suspects abroad, without a formal court warrant.
Congress agreed to a six-month revision of the law in August. And the president is pressuring lawmakers to revisit the issue now and to put a permanent reform bill into place before the stop-gap measure expires on February 1, 2008.
"Without these tools it will be harder to figure out what our enemies are doing to train, recruit and infiltrate operatives into America. Without these tools, our country will be much more vulnerable to attack," he said.
President Bush is also asking Congress to add provisions excluded from the six-month measure. He says the law must block lawsuits against telecommunication companies that turned over information for terrorist surveillance without court warrants, and without notifying the parties involved.
Congressional critics say such action is an invasion of the constitutional right to privacy. And they worry the administration's request for leniency to conduct terrorist surveillance goes too far.
Among those raising objections is Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat. He says the law the administration wants to extend gives the government unnecessary license to eavesdrop on Americans without court supervision.
"Let's have some truth in advertising. The act gives the president almost unfettered powers to spy without judicial approval not only on foreigners but on Americans," he said.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino says the president understands that Democrats have concerns about language in the law that could be interpreted to allow authorities to seize personal information, such as medical records, without a warrant. Perino says authorities are not invading the privacy of individuals. But she adds the White House will consider clarifications that do not weaken the law.