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Congressmen Debate Renewal of Warrantless Surveillance Law

February 15, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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After a standoff with House Republicans and President Bush, the Democratic-led House failed to extend a warrantless terrorist eavesdropping program Friday. Congressmen Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., offer two views on the divisive surveillance law.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Legislation authorizing the current Terrorist Surveillance Program is set to expire at midnight. Standing in the way of its renewal is a fight between President Bush and House Democrats over granting immunity to telecom companies already facing some 40 lawsuits for voluntarily cooperating with the program.

The president says without the program intelligence agencies will not get the information they need to track terrorists.

We get two views on the standoff from Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland — he is the House majority leader — and Congressman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan. He is the ranking member on the House Select Committee on Intelligence.

Gentlemen, we appreciate your joining us. Thank you very much.

REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD), House Majority Leader: Thank you, Judy.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA (R), Michigan: Thank you.

Surveillance law set to expire

Rep. Peter Hoekstra
(R) Michigan
When this Protect America Act expires, we are going to go back under the same set of rules and regulations that were in place before 9/11.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Hoekstra, to you first, do you stand by President Bush's statement that if this legislation is allowed to expire the government won't be able to get information it needs to track terrorists?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, the question is not whether it will expire. We know that it will expire. It will expire this weekend. So we will lose important communications methods.

You know, to put this in context, immediately in the aftermath of 9/11, congressional leaders and the administration determined that FISA did not work with the flexibility, the speed, and the agility that we needed to track terrorists.

When this Protect America Act expires, we are going to go back under the same set of rules and regulations that were in place before 9/11. The administration, the current speaker of the House determined that those rules, that legal framework didn't work in 2001.

The dangers to America, our troops and our allies are as great as they were then, and the law will not work now in 2008. It will not work. We will start losing -- our capabilities will start eroding. We won't lose everything at once. Our capabilities will erode over the next few weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Hoyer, is that much at stake here?

REP. STENY HOYER: I don't think anything is going to erode. The difference will be that the administration for new authority may have to go to the FISA court, and can get it, and can act before it gets it in an emergency.

But I just simply think Peter Hoekstra, who is a wonderful member of Congress, is wrong on this issue. But more importantly -- and I usually don't do this -- but let me read from a statement by Ben Powell, yesterday.

Ben Powell, general counsel, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said this: "Just to make sure there's no misunderstanding, we will not for the directives that are in place, the expiration of PAA, the Protect America Act, will not then shave back on the surveillance authority under those exact directives."

So in other words, every authority in place under the Protect America Act will continue in being for at least a year, and perhaps as short a time as six months, if the directive was given six months ago.

But the point is -- and I want to give the message to any terrorists who think that we're going down -- that, in fact, every protection that was in place remains in place. We can vigorously go after the interception of communications harmful to the United States.

We wanted, as you know, Judy, to extend the legislative authority for 21 days. To a person, the Republicans voted against extending an act which they think is critical, which they say is critical to our national security.

The president said he would veto an extension. I can't believe the president would have vetoed legislation which he now says is critical to the protection of the United States. It is a contradictory argument that the Republicans are making.

The impact of the law's expiry

Rep. Steny Hoyer
Majority Leader
The Congress's role is to deliberate and pass constitutionally legislation which will protect our country. That's what we intended to do. You wouldn't allow us to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we'll come back to you, Representative Hoekstra. What about this statement that Congressman Hoyer just read from the general counsel of the director of national intelligence?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: You got to listen to the words very, very closely. And, Steny, you may think I'm wrong, but listen to the words. Listen to the words you read.

It says for any directives under the PAA, they will continue. I'm sorry. This is not a static world; this is a very dynamic world.

The example is, if we find 20 new suicide bombers that left Afghanistan that are going to, you know, do their work in Spain, you may need a new order, and we're not going to have the flexibility, the agility, and the speed to get it done.

Congress should have stayed in this week. We had a bill that passed by a huge bipartisan majority in the Senate that would have enabled us to keep these protections in place.

Congress is about results; it's not about excuses. Going home and letting this law expire is inexcusable. We should be there. We could finish this work and get it done.

The Democrats blocked the Senate bill coming to the floor. That is what has the majority votes in the House of Representatives.

REP. STENY HOYER: Judy, I don't know how long Peter is going to go on, but, Peter, Peter, come on.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: This is a fight between the president and Democrats in the House.

REP. STENY HOYER: Peter, I don't want to make this partisan or political, but you and I both know we sent a bill to the Senate three months ago. And, very frankly, your Republican allies in the Senate have been slow-walking it and didn't pass it, their alternative, until Tuesday of this week and presented it to us on Wednesday, and said, "Take it or leave it." That's what the president said.

We said that is not the legislative process. These are very important issues, not only in protecting our citizens, but in protecting our Constitution. And so we said, "Give us 21 days. We'll let the law continue for 21 days that you claim is important to protect America," which we believe you have the authority to do anyway, and I want to get back to that.

But you wouldn't do it. You wouldn't do it because you wanted to demand that we do exactly what the president says. That's not the Congress's role.

The Congress's role is to deliberate and pass constitutionally legislation which will protect our country. That's what we intended to do. You wouldn't allow us to do that.

Let me -- Judy, let me add, you know, Peter, as well as I do, in the situation that you just referred to, they can act and get authorization for such actions within the next 72 hours.

So they can act immediately in the situation right now, or on Sunday after the law that you're referring to expires, and without any concern, because they can get authorization from the FISA court under present law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Hoekstra, what about that...

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Steny, they can't do that. They need to establish probable cause. That's why in 2001 ... the other leadership said the fairest surveillance program or that FISA did not work. That's why it needs to be modified. What you're describing didn't work in 2001 and will not work beginning next week.

REP. STENY HOYER: Peter, with all due respect...

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: ... because we're going back to that point.

Telecom companies and the law

Rep. Peter Hoekstra
(R) Michigan
The reason the telecommunications companies have to have this immunity is that the administration ... went to them and asked them for their voluntary assistance, and they provided it to the U.S. government to keep us safe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, I need to interject here, because I do need to come to Majority Leader Hoyer with this question, and that is, why are Democrats, the majority of Democrats in the House, not willing to, in essence, grant this liability protection to the telecom companies who are facing, what, some 40 lawsuits? This really is part of what's at the core of this disagreement.

REP. STENY HOYER: Judy, I think that's a very excellent question. And we have not reached the issue because we are being asked to give immunity or amnesty for conduct that we still do not know the nature of, the character of, the extent of, and that is our problem.

We have been denied the documentation until two weeks ago that the Senate was given months ago by the administration.

The issue, though, is not retrospective immunity for the telecom companies. We can resolve that issue. We wanted to pass -- and we did pass -- a bill which modernized FISA, as Peter was saying, which allowed the DNI and the intelligence committee to do what it needed to do in a more accelerated fashion, but that was not passed by the Senate.

They passed a bill which had a very controversial provision which needs examination, and we don't yet have the information.

But we believe very strongly that the administration has the authority -- and we want to tell terrorists around the country, around the world, we have the authority to intercept your communications now. So don't believe that America is in any way weakened or not vigilant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Hoekstra, on that point of granting immunity, why should these telecommunications companies be granted this immunity?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, number one, this provision was passed by a wide majority in the Senate: 68 senators voted for this, including 27 Democrats. That was a clear bipartisan vote.

The reason the telecommunications companies have to have this immunity is that the administration, with the concurrence of the congressional leadership in 2001, went to them and asked them for their voluntary assistance, and they provided it to the U.S. government to keep us safe.

And now there are those who are willing to throw the telecommunications companies under the bus. It is having a chilling impact on all corporations and other agencies that are in a position where they can voluntarily provide assistance to the government, whether it's in terrorism cases, drug cases, or whatever.

It's having a chilling effect because now the government is willing to say, "You came. We asked for your help. You gave it to us voluntarily. Sorry, we're cutting you off."

Congress, the current speaker of the House, agreed to these provisions. They were aware of what was going on. Now is the time to provide and stand up with these companies who did the right thing to keep America safe.

Democrats ask for more time

Rep. Steny Hoyer
Majority Leader
The reason we asked for a 21-day extension was, when we received the bill on Tuesday night, to have the opportunity to go to conference and discuss that very matter ... with the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask Majority Leader Hoyer to respond on that point.

REP. STENY HOYER: Judy, I'll respond to that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How long will it take to resolve this?

REP. STENY HOYER: Well, I hope not long. As a matter of fact, I met today with the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Rockefeller, Congressman Reyes on the House side, and with Congressman Conyers. Patrick Leahy could not be at that meeting.

We've asked them to reach out to their ranking Republican members, including Peter Hoekstra, who's very knowledgeable on this issue. We have a disagreement.

But we are hoping to move ahead over the next few days, before we get back from this recess, to address these issues, both in terms of Title I, which is the FISA modernization part, as well as the immunity part, in the coming weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I just need to also ask -- I need to cut in here, Mr. Hoyer, and ask you, how do you expect to resolve your differences with those 20-some Democrats in the Senate who voted with the White House on this?

REP. STENY HOYER: Well, I think that clearly they passed a version of the legislation. We ought to have, and the legislative process anticipates, and the founding fathers provided for, a way to reach agreement between the two houses.

The reason we asked for a 21-day extension was, when we received the bill on Tuesday night, to have the opportunity to go to conference and discuss that very matter, Judy, with the Senate. That's the way the legislative process should be conducted.

But the Republicans voted against that extension, notwithstanding the fact they say that puts the country at risk. We don't believe that, but they believe it. They assert it. And notwithstanding that, they voted, in effect, not to extend the present act.

Why did they do so? To try to force us to do something that they thought was the right thing to do, but on which there is great controversy. It's a shame.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: So, Steny, why are we home today? Why did we go home on Thursday afternoon? We should have stayed in Washington Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday until this got worked out, because it does weaken our national security.

REP. STENY HOYER: Peter...

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: The president said he was willing to postpone his trip to Africa to work this out.

REP. STENY HOYER: Peter...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen...

REP. STENY HOYER: ... I'm in Washington. Reyes is in Washington. Conyers is in Washington, and Rockefeller was in Washington. So you're the one that's home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, we are going to have to leave it there, and we will be following this story into next week.

Representative Hoekstra and Majority Leader Hoyer, thank you both. We appreciate it.

REP. STENY HOYER: Thank you, Judy.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Thank you.