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Bush says lawmakers leave nation vulnerable by holding up eavesdropping law

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BEN FELLER
January 31, 2008
— Sternly prodding Congress, President Bush said Thursday that lawmakers are jeopardizing the nation’s safety by failing to lock in a government eavesdropping law.

The president signed what Congress has given him so far – a 15-day extension of the law that allows electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists. But he said Congress should urgently pass a permanent law, on his terms, to safeguard the country.


“I expect members of both political parties to get this work done so our professionals can protect the American people,” Bush said in a speech here about the threat of terrorism.


The law in question allows eavesdropping of phone calls and e-mails involving people in the U.S. Bush and Congress are at odds over an update of the law, mainly whether to give legal immunity to companies that helped the government spy on customers without court warrants.


Bush also served notice anew that in Iraq, he will not risk recent gains in security by pulling U.S. troops home too fast. Indeed, Bush is signaling that he may slow or halt the current drawdown of some forces if his commanders say that’s needed.


His message comes as Congress and much of the country have grown weary of the war.


“I will be making decisions based on success on Iraq,” he told members of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank.


“The temptation of course is for people to say, ’Well, make sure you do the politically right thing,”’ Bush said. “That’s not my nature. That’s not exactly what we’re going to do.”


The line got Bush a standing ovation. “We will succeed in Iraq,” Bush declared.


The U.S. troop commitment is expected to be down to roughly 130,000 to 135,000 by July, the same number as before Bush sent in reinforcements a year ago. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is scheduled to report to Congress in April on what he recommends next. His guidance, and that of other commanders, will guide Bush.


The president is on a four-state tour to trumpet themes from his State of the Union address, which he delivered Monday, and to raise cash for the Republican Party.


Bush saved his toughest words for the debate about the eavesdropping law. Saying it was essential to the security of the United States, he sought to pressure Congress to act.


He said the surveillance program helps intelligence professionals root out the intentions and plans of people plotting mass killings.


“If these terrorists and extremists are making phone calls into our country, we need to know why they’re calling, what they’re thinking, and what they’re planning,” Bush said.


Lawmakers had hastily adopted the law last August when the White House warned of dangerous gaps in its surveillance authority. Civil rights and privacy advocates say the broadly written law allows the government to eavesdrop on innocent Americans without oversight from a court created for that purpose.


Bush briefly addressed that point. He said he wants a bill that “guarantees the rights of our citizens, but doesn’t extend those guarantees to those who would do us harm.”


The surveillance law dictates when federal agents must get court permission before tapping phone and computer lines inside the U.S. to gather data on foreign threats.


Bush is sandwiching policy events around events to gin up cash for his party. After his speech, he was attending a fundraiser in Las Vegas and then another in Denver. He also will have one in Kansas City, Mo., on Friday along with an economic event.


Despite public approval ratings near the lowest of his presidency, Bush remains a popular and lucrative draw for his party. And the GOP’s challenges are growing steeper.


Already in the minority, Republicans in the Senate must defend nearly twice as many seats this year as Democrats. And a number of GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate plan to retire rather than run again, putting even more Republican-held seats in play.



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