President Bush on Thursday pressed Congress to give telecommunications companies legal immunity for helping the government eavesdrop after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Speaking at a White House news conference, Bush continued a near-daily effort to prod lawmakers into passing his version of a law to make it easier for the government to conduct domestic eavesdropping on suspected terrorists’ phone calls and e-mails. He says the country is in more danger now that a temporary surveillance law has expired.
The president and congressional Democrats are in a showdown over Bush’s demand on the immunity issue. Bush says that allowing telecommunications companies to be sued would “give al-Qaida and others a roadmap as to how to avoid the surveillance.”
Bush said the companies helped the government after being told “that their assistance was legal and vital to national security.” “Allowing these lawsuits to proceed would be unfair,” he said.
More important, Bush added, “the litigation process could lead to the disclosure of information about how we conduct surveillance and it would give al Qaida and others a roadmap as to how to avoid the surveillance.”
The Senate passed its version of the surveillance bill earlier this month, and it provides retroactive legal protection for telecommunications companies that wiretapped U.S. phone and computer lines at the government’s request and without court permission.
The House version, approved in October, does not include telecom immunity.
Telecom companies face around 40 lawsuits for their alleged role in wiretapping their American customers.
Senate Democrats appeared unwilling to budge.
As Bush began speaking, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., cast the president’s position as a “tiresome campaign...to avoid accountability for the unlawful surveillance of Americans.”
“The president once again is misusing his bully pulpit,” Leahy said. “Once again they are showing they are not above fear-mongering if that’s what it takes to get their way.”
On another issue, Bush said the country is not headed into a recession and, despite expressing concern about slowing economic growth, rejected for now any additional stimulus efforts.
“We’ve acted robustly,” he said.
“We’ll see the effects of this pro-growth package,” Bush told reporters. “I know there’s a lot of, here in Washington people are trying to — stimulus package two — and all that stuff. Why don’t we let stimulus package one, which seemed like a good idea at the time, have a chance to kick in?”
The centerpiece of government efforts to brace the wobbly economy is a package Congress passed and Bush signed last month. It will rush rebates ranging from $300 to $1,200 to millions of people and give tax incentives to businesses.
On Russia Asked about Dmitry Medvedev, the handpicked successor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bush said he didn't know much about him.
Bush said it will be interesting to see who represents Russia — presumably either Medvedev or Putin — at the Group of Eight meeting later this year in Japan.
The president advised his own successor to develop a personal relationship with whomever is in charge in Moscow.
“As you know, Putin’s a straightforward, pretty tough character when it comes to his interests — well so am I,” Bush said. He said that he and Putin have “had some diplomatic head butts.”
Bush also said, however, that the pair have “a cordial enough relationship to be able to deal with common threats and opportunities, and that’s going to be important for the next president to maintain.”
On Turkey and Iraq
Bush also answered a question on Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, saying that it should be limited — and should end as soon as possible.
The ongoing fighting has put the United States in a touchy position, as it is close allies with both Iraq and Turkey, and a long offensive along the border could jeopardize security in Iraq just as the U.S. is trying to stabilize the war-wracked country.
“It should not be long-lasting,” Bush said. “The Turks need to move, move quickly, achieve their objective and get out.”
He also said, though, that it is in no one’s interest for the PKK to have safe havens.
On CubaAsked what would be lost by meeting with new Cuban leader Raul Castro, Bush rejected the idea, stating: “What’s lost by embracing a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs? What’s lost is it will send the wrong message.”
“It will give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity. I’m not suggesting there is never a time to talk,” he said, but he added now was not the time to beginning discussions with Raul Castro.
“He’s nothing more than an extension of what his brother did, which was to ruin an island and to imprison people because of their beliefs,” Bush said.
On NAFTA and DemocratsBush also criticized Democratic presidential candidates for suggesting the United States could “opt out” of the North American Free Trade Agreement if Canada and Mexico don’t agree to renegotiate the pact.
“There are a lot of farmers and businesses, large and small, who are benefiting from having a market in our neighborhood. And the idea of just unilaterally withdrawing from a trade treaty because of, you know, trying to score political points is not good policy,” Bush said during a White House press conference.
Bush also warned that congressional rejection of an unpopular free trade pact with Colombia would damage U.S. national security interests in the Latin American region and said he expected lawmakers to vote on the pact soon.
“The Colombia free trade vote is coming up,” Bush said.