WASHINGTON – A new round of political sparring erupted Friday over the government’s wiretapping powers, as the Bush administration asserted that the lapsing of a surveillance law a week ago has already led to the loss of important intelligence information and made private phone carriers less willing to cooperate.
Democrats immediately returned fire over the suggestion that they had compromised national security. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, accused President Bush of “crying wolf” and said, “These latest scare tactics represent the president at his most unreasonable, irresponsible and misleading.”
The escalation in tensions appeared to dim hopes of a quick resolution to the weeks-long impasse when Congress returns next week from a break.
House Democratic leaders last week allowed the temporary surveillance law to expire rather than submit to White House demands that the House pass a Senate version that would have expanded the government’s eavesdropping abilities and given immunity to the phone carriers that helped in the National Security Agency’s program of wiretapping without warrants. The leaders wanted a 21-day extension of the law to allow more time for negotiations, but the White House deemed that idea unacceptable.
Democratic staff members from the House and Senate met Friday for the second time this week to negotiate a compromise between their competing legislation, but differences remained over immunity and safeguards for civil liberties. The administration and Congressional Republicans have refused to send representatives to the negotiating sessions, angering Democrats.
“They’re basically saying just pass the Senate bill or we won’t negotiate,” said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “It’s their way or the highway, and that’s an untenable position.”
Although the surveillance measure has expired, intelligence officials are still able to use wiretapping tools under pre-existing authorities.
But in a sharply worded letter released Friday, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, said the return to the older standards for wiretapping had hurt intelligence collection.
The letter, sent to Representative Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, told Mr. Reyes he had misunderstood important facets of the nation’s intelligence capabilities by suggesting that the expiration of the Protect America Act, approved on a temporary basis last August, would have little practical impact.
“Our experience in the past few days since the expiration of the act demonstrates that these concerns are neither speculative nor theoretical,” the letter said. “Allowing the act to expire without passing the bipartisan Senate bill had real and negative consequences for our national security. Indeed, this has led directly to a degraded intelligence capability.”
The letter gave no details on actual intelligence losses.
Mr. Mukasey and Mr. McConnell said the uncertainty created by the lapse of the law had “reduced cooperation” from some telecommunication providers, causing them to delay or refuse to comply with wiretap requests.
Generally, the government has the ability to compel the cooperation of private companies and assure them legal immunity with a valid court order. But intelligence officials said compelling cooperation was a cumbersome process that could require litigation, and they predicted that more private companies might resist cooperating if the current impasse and uncertainty over the law continued.
Democratic leaders blamed the administration for any problems, saying its refusal to agree to a brief extension of the law had caused any lapses.
“If it is true that the expiration of the P.A.A. has caused gaps in intelligence, then it was irresponsible for the president and Congressional Republicans to block an extension of the law,” the chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees said in a statement. “Accordingly, they should join Democrats in extending it until we can resolve our differences.”