Congressman: U.S. Not in Danger Without Spy Law

Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, disputes President Bush's claim that the country is less safe because Congress let lapse a temporary law that governs government spying. He tells Steve Inskeep why House Democrats have not acted on the law.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Within a few days the White House and Congress may try again to renew a law that governs a government spy. The name of the bill spells out its official purpose. It's called the Protect America Act and it makes it easier for the U.S. to eavesdrop on phone calls and emails. The rule is intended to monitor suspected terrorists. It would replace a law that expired a few days ago, to the dismay of President Bush.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Because Congress failed to act it will be harder for our government to keep you safe form terrorist attack.

INSKEEP: That's President Bush being broadcast over the weekend. We're going to get another view now from Congressman Silvestre Reyes. He is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, the top Democrat on that committee. He's speaking with us from El Paso, Texas. Congressman, welcome to the program.

Representative SILVESTRE REYES (Democrat, Texas, Chairman, House Intelligence Committee): Thank you, Steve. I'm glad to be here.

INSKEEP: Is President Bush right that Congress failing to act makes the country less safe?

Rep. REYES: No. President Bush has just been spoiled dealing with the Republican-controlled Congress before. I take strong offense at the president's comments that somehow we're less safe because the Protect America Act expired.

INSKEEP: Although, wait a minute, if this law makes any difference at all, how could that statement not be true? You did have it now you don't?

Rep. REYES: Well, first of all, investigations that were initiated under the Protect America Act will continue. They're valid for a year. The Protect America Act kicked in last August so we have until at least August to gather information under that authority.

INSKEEP: Now, I do want to check one thing here. You point out that the authority for ongoing investigations continues under this act for a number of months even though the act itself is expired. If there's an ongoing investigation you can keep right on investigating.

Mike McConnell, the head of the intelligence community, affirmed that in an interview last week. But people in the White House have also been pointing out if there's a new investigation. Let's say there's a brand new target of concern. This week, can the National Security Agency and other agencies use every tool that they had available to them a week ago or is something denied to them?

Rep. REYES: Well, let me just answer that question by reminding us all that last summer before the Protect America Act actually kicked in, under the old FISA law, we used that to bring down that terrorist organization in Germany. That's where we are today. Should there be a new group that's not covered under the Protect America Act; we can use the FISA law.

INSKEEP: Just to be clear for those who may not follow this every day, you're saying that there's a decades-old law from the 1970s, which still applies, which still provides a lot of authority in this area?

Rep. REYES: Yes. The law first passed in 1978 but it's been updated at least 50 times we've updated that law.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to ask you about something else that Mike McConnell, the head of the intelligence community, said on this program last week. He said that this was his biggest concern:

Mr. MIKE MCCONNELL (Head of Intelligence Community): This issue is liability protection for the private sector. We can't do this mission without their help. Currently there is no retroactive liability protection for them. They're being sued for billions of dollars. So the board fiduciary responsibilities causes them to be less cooperative. So in the current bill and the current law, which is on the books today, there is no protection for them.

INSKEEP: Let me see if I can translate that. McConnell is saying that if they are going to eavesdrop on people's phone calls they need the cooperation of telecommunications companies, the companies are being sued for cooperating with the government, they don't have immunity at this time and without it the intelligence efforts are becoming less and less effective. They're getting less cooperation. Is he right about that?

Rep. REYES: Well, I don't think he's right about them getting less cooperation. I do know that the companies are concerned about the lawsuits and would like blanket immunity. The Senate version of the legislation gave them that blanket immunity. We have given them prospective immunity with our legislation. But because we didn't have access to the documents that the president provided to the Senate but failed to the House until about three weeks ago, we hadn't had an opportunity, obviously, to review those documents.

For us, it's an issue of how can we give blanket immunity when we don't know what that immunity is for. I myself have an open mind, though, about this. But again we also want to know. I think we have an obligation to know what it is that we're giving immunity for.

INSKEEP: Congressman Reyes, once you get past what you see is the politics on this and the questions of timing, is there a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans on what to do?

Rep. REYES: No. I think all of us understand that it's imperative that we give our agencies in charge of our national security every tool that they need to do their jobs. I don't think that anybody quibbles with that. We're not in danger, we're not going dark, we've got all the tools that the intelligence agencies need to do their job to keep us safe. And we're going to do this in a regular order.

INSKEEP: Congressman Silvestre Reyes is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Thank you very much.

Rep. REYES: Thank you, Steve. Nice talking to you.

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Intel Chief: Telecom Immunity a Security Issue

The Bush administration and House Democrats are locked in a standoff over an electronic surveillance bill passed by the Senate. The bill provides retroactive immunity to telecom companies that helped the government gather intelligence after the Sept. 11 attacks. The current rules expire Saturday.

The president warns that terrorists are planning new attacks that could make the Sept. 11 attacks "pale by comparison" and says that failure to pass the Protect America Act could have dire consequences. Democrats say they are trying to balance concerns about civil liberties against the government's spy powers.

Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, told Renee Montagne the main issue is liability protection for the private sector.

"We can't do this mission without their help," he said. "Currently there is no retroactive liability protection for them. They're being sued for billions of dollars."

He said the lawsuits are causing them to be less cooperative and that their actions are not illegal.

"The Senate committee that passed the bill examined the activities of the telecom companies and concluded they were not violating the law," he said.

If the current law were extended while the House and Senate work out their differences, there would be no retroactive protection for the companies, McConnell said, "and we'd lose the capability to protect the country."

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