WASHINGTON (AP) – Ending months of resistance, the White House has agreed to give House members access to secret documents about its warrantless wiretapping program, a congressional official said Thursday.
The Bush administration is trying to convince the House to protect from civil lawsuits the telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on Americans without the approval of a court. Congress created the court 30 years ago to oversee such activities.
House Intelligence and Judiciary committee members and staff will begin reading the documents at the White House Thursday, said an aide to Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.
Reyes and ranking Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan requested the documents in May, saying they would not support telecom immunity without them. The Senate committees were given the documents last fall.
The documents include the president's authorization of warrantless wiretapping, White House legal opinions going back to 2001, and the requests sent to the telecommunications companies asking for their assistance, said the official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the classified program.
The White House's offer comes as the Senate grapples with how to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that dictates when federal agents must obtain court permission before tapping phone and computer lines inside the United States to gather intelligence on foreign threats. Agents may tap lines outside the country without court oversight.
This is the second time it has taken up the modernization bill. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., abruptly closed debate in December when it became clear the Senate couldn't finish work before the holiday break.
Now lawmakers are up against a different deadline: the Feb. 1 expiration of the current surveillance law. If a new law is not passed by then, some eavesdropping practices that are now legal would be prohibited. Most vexing to the intelligence agencies, the government would have to get court orders to listen in on all communications that pass through U.S. telecommunications switches and computer servers, even those that are purely between people outside the country.
Retroactive legal immunity for telecommunications companies is the most contentious issue. The Senate is expected to vote this week whether to shield the companies from the roughly 40 pending civil lawsuits alleging violations of communications and wiretapping laws. The White House says if the cases go forward they could reveal information that would compromise national security. It also contends that the companies could be bankrupted if the lawsuits are successful.
The companies were helping the administration carry out the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program, a still classified effort that intercepted communications on U.S. soil without oversight from the FISA court from Sept. 11, 2001 to January 17, 2007.
President Bush tried on Thursday to pressure congressional Democrats to extend the government's eavesdropping powers.
Bush, in a written statement, said the law has allowed the intelligence community to monitor the communications of terrorists.
"Congress' action or lack of action on this important issue will directly affect our ability to keep Americans safe," Bush said. Vice President Dick Cheney spoke about the same issue in a speech on Wednesday.
The White House favors the Senate Intelligence Committee's version of the FISA modernization bill, which provides immunity. The Senate Judiciary Committee has a competing version that expands the power of the court to oversee how the government is monitoring the communications of Americans who are in contact with foreigners being targeted for surveillance. The Senate is expected to vote on both versions.
Reid warned Senators this week that they will have to work through the weekend to get a bill passed after Republicans blocked his attempt to extend the existing law for a month.
Congress hastily adopted the stopgap Protect America Act last summer in the face of administration warnings about dangerous gaps in the government's ability to gather intelligence in the Internet age.