WASHINGTON -- President Bush launched an effort yesterday to preserve new spying powers for U.S. intelligence agencies that critics worry could ensnare unwitting American citizens. Bush said restrictions being considered by Congress would leave the country less prepared to combat terrorism.
During a visit to the National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade, the president said that workers who collect and interpret communications need provisions contained in the Protect America Act, adopted last month, to do their jobs.
"You don't have to worry about the motivation of the people out here," said Bush, speaking of NSA's 35,000 employees, most of whom work in Maryland. "What we do have to worry about is to make sure that they have all the tools they need to do their jobs."
Under pressure from the Bush administration, Congress adopted changes last month to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that are designed to make it easier for government officials to intercept messages from people overseas without a warrant - even if a U.S. citizen is on the receiving end of the communication.
Some Democrats said the changes infringe on constitutional rights, and Congress put a six-month limit on the law, giving lawmakers a chance to revise it.
Bush rejected the need for revisions yesterday and said the surveillance regulations should be made permanent.
"The problem is the law expires on February 1st - that's 135 days from today," Bush said. "The threat from al-Qaida is not going to expire in 135 days."
The country would be "much more vulnerable to attack," he said, if Congress altered parts of the program.
Lawmakers have been grappling with surveillance since the disclosure of a warrantless wiretapping program launched after the 9/11 terrorism attacks. Bush agreed in January to allow judges to review the program, but he sought changes to the FISA law that would allow warrantless interception of messages from outside the U.S. involving people here.
Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the Intelligence Committee chairman, said the August revisions "did not include sufficient protections for Americans."
But Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican, accused Democrats of raising unsubstantiated fears about the latest version of the law and wrongly accusing the intelligence director of bad-faith negotiations.
Bond said he agreed, however, that the law "can be improved, clarified."
Bush also asked Congress to adopt retroactive liability protections for telecommunications companies that cooperated with the government's warrantless surveillance program, a concept raised by the administration previously but dropped during negotiations with Congress.
Bush was accompanied on his 90-minute visit by Vice President Dick Cheney and National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell.
Reporters and photographers were briefly allowed into the high-tech National Threat Operations Center, where Bush chatted with employees manning semicircular rows of computers. Large display screens along the walls provided much of the light in the room, and a sign noted the equipment was in "unclassified" mode.