Using some of his toughest language in weeks, President Bush prodded Congress on Thursday to pass his preferred version of surveillance legislation, asserting that every day of delay could put the country in danger.
Mr. Bush said again that renewing the surveillance legislation is “a very urgent priority,” and that it must include controversial provisions that would shield telecommunications companies from wholesale lawsuits over their assistance in monitoring the phone calls and e-mail messages of suspected terrorists without warrants.
Failure to give the legal protection to the telecom companies would not only be unwise and dangerous policy but plain unfair, the president said at a White House news conference. The companies were told by government leaders after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “that their assistance was legal and vital to national security,” the president said. “Allowing these lawsuits to proceed would be unfair.”
Contrary to what administration critics say, “people who analyze the program fully understand that America’s civil liberties are well protected,” President Bush.
The Senate passed a surveillance bill to the president’s liking on Feb. 12, by a hefty margin. The chamber rejected a series of amendments that would have imposed greater civil-liberties checks on government surveillance powers, and it afforded legal protection to the telecom companies.
But the House has resisting passing that bill, prompting a heated debate over the proper balance between individual liberties and national security in the age of terrorism. If the final legislation does not include protection for the companies, a wave of lawsuits could reveal how the United States conducts surveillance “and give Al Qaeda and others a road map as to how to avoid surveillance,” Mr. Bush said.
Without the cooperation of private companies, “we cannot protect our country from terrorist attack,” the president declared, adding that the dispute was “not a partisan issue.”
Although there was nothing really new in the stance the president took, he adopted unusually robust language – saying, for instance, that it was “dangerous, just dangerous” for the legislation to be delayed, and pledging to continue speaking out about the issue until the American people understand and, by implication, the lawmakers follow the will of their constituents.
Mr. Bush also used one of his favorite themes, that of the trial lawyer who salivates at the money to be made through frivolous lawsuits. Perhaps, he said, these lawyers “see a financial gravy train” if they can sue the deep-pockets telecom companies.
Democrats counterattacked while the president was still speaking.
“If the President had not rejected an extension of current law and refused to negotiate with Congress, it is very likely that the new FISA bill could already be law today,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, using the acronym for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “It is disingenuous for the president to claim the country is less safe when he is the one responsible for holding up the legislative process.”
And Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said the president was using “the specter of terrorism” to push his own agenda.
“If the telecommunications companies didn’t break the law, they do not need immunity,” the senator said. “If they broke the law, the American people deserve to know the size and scope of their lawbreaking. Adhering to the rule of law would not ‘aid our enemies’ – it would uphold the very principles we are fighting for. The President’s position has nothing to do with protecting Americans and everything to do with sweeping under the rug illegal activity by his administration and his corporate partners.”
Mr. Bush used the news conference to reiterate several other long-held positions: The “temporary” tax cuts set to expire over the next few years, he said, should be made permanent to bolster the economy, which he said was not slowing down but was not skidding into recession. Big new taxes on the major oil companies would backfire, driving up energy costs, he said.
And the president showed no interest in getting acquainted with RaÃºl Castro, whom he described as just an extension of his brother Fidel, whose half-century tenure as president of Cuba has kept the island in isolation and poverty.
President Bush was asked whether he agreed with Senator Barack Obama that the United States would be better off if the president were willing to hold direct talks with leaders of countries like Iran and Cuba.
Republicans, and some Democrats, have harshly criticized Mr. Obama for his original suggestion that he would be willing to sit down with people like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in order to explore important differences. Mr. Obama has since clarified his stance, saying he would do so only if adequate preparations were made for such talks.
Though the president has generally shied away from commenting directly on the presidential campaign, he launched immediately into a vigorous criticism of Mr. Obama’s idea.
“Embracing a tyrant?” he asked, seeming worked up at the idea. “It’ll send the wrong message. It’ll send a discouraging message to those who wonder if America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners, it’ll give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity.”
Mr. Bush said he had been deeply moved by meetings with the wives of Cuban dissidents, and that embracing a leader like Mr. Castro without first bringing greater pressure for improvements on human rights in Cuba “would be counterproductive and send the wrong signal.”
Mr. Bush continued in the same critical vein: “Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as RaÃºl Castro lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him,” he said. “He gains a lot from it by saying, ‘Look at me: I’m now recognized by the president of the United States.’ ”
The president indicated that there was no chance his policy on meeting such leaders would change.
In a similar vein, he was asked whether his plan to attend the Summer Olympics in Beijing this year might undercut the impact of American complaints about Chinese human rights violations.
“I’m going to the Olympics because it’s a sporting event,” he said. But he said that this would not preclude him from trying to persuade Chinese leaders that freedom of religion, for example, can “benefit society as a whole.”
He said he was “not the least bit shy” about bringing such questions up, and expected to do so.
Mr. Bush was also asked whether he was concerned that Turkey might keep a protracted military presence in Kurdish regions of northern Iraq.
“I strongly agree with the sentiments of Secretary Gates, who said the incursion must be limited and must be temporary in nature,” he said. “The Turks need to move, to move quickly, achieve their objectives and get out.”
Pressed by a reporter about whether quickly meant a matter of days or weeks, he declined to be specific, saying only, “As quickly as possible.”
But he also expressed sympathy over the problems Turkey faces in its border region.
“The Turks, the Americans and the Iraqis – including the Iraqi Kurds – share a common enemy in the P.K.K.,” he said, referring to an armed Kurdish group.
A reporter asked Mr. Bush what he knew about Dmitri Medvedev, the man chosen to be the next Russian president, succeeding Vladimir V. Putin. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Obama had been asked about him in their debate Tuesday night, and Clinton wrestled with the pronunciation of his name.
“I don’t know much about Medvedev either,” Mr. Bush said.
He said he was waiting to see who will represent Russia at this year’s Group of Eight meeting in Hokkaido, Japan. Mr. Putin is in line to become prime minister, but it remains unclear how much power he will retain after Mr. Medvedev’s expected accession.
Above all, Mr. Bush sought to emphasize the importance for the United States of maintaining a good working relationship with the new Russian leadership, regardless of their unavoidable differences.
“I want to try to leave it so whoever my successor is will be able to have a relationship with whoever’s running foreign policy in Russia,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we have to agree all the time, and obviously we didn’t agree on Kosovo.”
The United States supports Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence of Serbia, while Russia has sharply criticized it.
Mr. Bush said he had appreciated Russian cooperation in efforts to halt Iran’s uranium-enrichment work, particularly Moscow’s offer to provide enriched uranium to Tehran so that it need not make its own.
“There’s areas where we need to cooperate,” the president said. His advice to the next president, he added, “is to establish a personal relationship with whoever’s in charge of foreign policy in Russia.”
At a time when both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have been critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which they say has cost jobs in places like Ohio, Mr. Bush said bluntly that a unilateral withdrawal from the treaty “is not good policy.”
As a former Texas governor, he said, he had seen the South Texas border area evolve from an area of great poverty to one considerably more affluent. “This agreement has meant prosperity on both sides of our border, north and south,” he said.
Though both Democratic candidates have been critical of NAFTA, both have taken nuanced positions on the treaty in the past, and have supported similar trade deals.
Mr. Bush also strongly urged Congress not to block a free-trade agreement with Colombia that the administration signed in 2006. Democratic legislators have cited human rights violations in Colombia, and its inhospitable treatment of labor organizers, in refusing to go along.
The president said rejecting the trade agreement would “encourage false populism in our neighborhood.”