President Bush on Monday lobbied again for an intelligence law allowing government eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails, as the tone of the dispute between the White House and Congress over terrorist surveillance grew increasingly sharp.
"To put it bluntly, if the enemy is calling into America, we really need to know what they're saying, and we need to know what they're thinking, and we need to know who they're talking to," Bush said at the start of his annual meeting with the nation's governors at the White House.
"This is a different kind of struggle than we've ever faced before. It's essential that we understand the mentality of these killers," Bush said.
The law in question targets foreign terrorist threats and allows eavesdropping on communications involving people in the U.S., so long as those people are not the intended focus or target of the surveillance. The latest version of the legislation expired on Feb. 16.
Bush and Congress are at odds over whether to give legal immunity to companies that in the past helped the government spy on customers without court warrants.
Bush wants the House to act on legislation the Senate has passed. That bill provides retroactive protection for telecommunications companies that wiretapped U.S. phone and computer lines at the government's request after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, without court permission.
The House version does not provide such immunity.
"Our government told them that their participation was necessary," Bush said. "And it was, and it still is, and that what we had asked them to do was legal. And now they're getting sued for billions of dollars. And it's not fair."
The president's pitch was the latest installment in a long and increasingly sharply-worded debate between Bush and congressional Democrats.
Democrats, in an op-ed piece Monday in The Washington Post, accused Bush of resorting to "scare tactics and political games."
"It is clear that he and his Republican allies, desperate to distract attention from the economy and other policy failures, are trying to use this issue to scare the American people into believing that congressional Democrats have left America vulnerable to terrorist attack," said the article.
The piece was signed by Democratic Sens. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Democratic Reps. Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
White House press secretary Dana Perino responded to their op-ed with her own statement. She said many Democrats are relying on "an old rhetorical tactic in Washington: you repeat something often enough, regardless of whether it's true, and hope people will start to believe it."
Perino said that Bush is not using scare tactics, but rather repeating the concerns of the intelligence community about the risks to the nation. "Unless this threat is taken more seriously in Congress, the ability to obtain the intelligence we need will be at risk, and with it our national security," Perino said.
The Justice Department and Office of National Intelligence said Saturday that telecommunication companies are now complying with existing surveillance warrants. The agencies also said that new surveillance activities under existing warrants will resume "for now," but that the delay "impaired our ability to cover foreign intelligence targets, which resulted in missed intelligence information."