updated 2/5/2008 12:59:26 PM ET 2008-02-05T17:59:26

President Bush will veto terrorist surveillance legislation pushed by Senate Democrats that doesn’t give retroactive legal protections to telecommunication providers who let the government spy on e-mails and phone calls involving people in the U.S., officials said Tuesday.

The veto threat, detailed in a 12-page letter from Attorney General Michael Mukasey and National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, was sent to the Senate as lawmakers grapple with how to update a 1978 surveillance law without violating privacy rights.

“If the president is sent a bill that does not provide the U.S. intelligence agencies the tools they need to protect the nation, the president will veto the bill,” Mukasey and McConnell wrote in the letter. It was sent to Senate leaders and the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees.

The warning was aimed at legislative amendments that deny the retroactive immunity to phone companies and other telecom providers. Mukasey and McConnell indicated they would support the overall bill, which was approved by the Senate intelligence committee and provides the legal shields, if the amendments were dropped.

“Although it is not perfect, it contains many important provisions, and was developed through a thoughtful process that resulted in a bill that helps ensure that both the lives and the civil liberties of Americans will be safeguarded,” Mukasey and McConnell wrote.

Without the retroactive protections, the letter noted, telecom providers might be unwilling to help the government track down terror suspects in the future as they were asked to do in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Private citizens who respond in good faith to a request for assistance by public officials should not beheld liable for their actions,” Mukasey and McConnell wrote.

The Senate could vote on the surveillance bill and amendments this week.

Some 40 civil lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies. They carry with them a threat of crippling financial penalties, which the White House says could bankrupt the companies.

Congress has struggled to strike a balance between catching terrorists and improperly spying on U.S. residents since last summer, when it sought to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That law requires the government to get approval from a secret court when it seeks to electronically eavesdrop on suspected terrorists or spies in the United States. The law does not apply to government wiretaps on people outside the country.

Over the years, however, communications between foreigners have been routed through technology based in the United States — raising the question of whether the government should have FISA court approval to listen in on those conversations. The bill being debated now seeks to resolve that issue.

Civil rights and privacy advocates say current law, which Congress approved in August in a hasty attempt to update the 1978 version, still allows the government to eavesdrop on Americans without court oversight. That law was set to expire Feb. 1 but was extended for two weeks as Congress works to hammer out a compromise.

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