President Bush wants Congress to broaden the government's powers to eavesdrop on private conversations without court approval. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, a controversial public surveillance law is set to expire February 1.
President Bush says the government's ability to listen-in on telephone calls is critical to fighting terror.
"One of the most important tools is to be able to figure out the intentions of an enemy that still wants to do us harm," he said. "If they are making calls into America, we need to know why they are calling, what they are thinking, and what they are planning."
U.S. intelligence agents currently monitor international phone calls between people in the United States and suspected terrorists under a law known as the Protect America Act. That law expires next Friday, but President Bush says the threat to America will not.
He wants legislation that permanently extends that authority, grants broader powers to wiretap without court approval and gives legal immunity to telephone companies that have helped the government monitor communications.
"It will maintain the vital flow of intelligence on terrorist threats," he added. "It will protect the privacy of Americans while making sure we do not extend those same protections to terrorists overseas. It will provide liability protection to companies now facing billions of dollars in lawsuits only because they are believed to have assisted the efforts to defend our nation following the 9/11 attacks."
The president told a meeting of House Republicans in the state of West Virginia that the government's ability to respond quickly to new threats will be weakened if the law is not renewed in time.
Critics say more oversight is needed to protect the privacy rights of Americans. Opposition Democrats say if the government wants to monitor communications between suspected terrorists abroad and people in the United States, it should get approval from a secret court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan says President Bush is politicizing an issue that ought to be about protecting the nation as well as its civil liberties.
"We thought we had done that by putting together the FISA court," he said. "We thought we had done that by establishing a procedure that needed to be followed. We now understand that the president with his lawyers say those laws don't matter. There is in the Constitution, they say, something about the powers of the Commander-in-Chief, and he can do whatever he wants. That is a pretty dangerous interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. We debate this in so much ignorance, because almost no one knows what this administration has done."
After months of resistance, the White House agreed Thursday to give Congress access to internal documents on the wiretapping program and the legal basis for its establishment.