President Bush threatened a veto Tuesday in the debate to update terrorist surveillance laws, assailing Democratic plans to deny protection from lawsuits for telecommunications providers that let the government spy on U.S. residents after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The threat came in a 12-page letter to Senate leaders from Attorney General Michael Mukasey and national intelligence director Mike McConnell. It was issued as lawmakers prepare to vote on legislation seeking to update a 1978 surveillance law without violating privacy rights.
"If the president is sent a bill that does not provide the U.S. intelligence agencies the tools they need to protect the nation, the president will veto the bill," wrote Mukasey and McConnell.
The letter was sent to Senate leaders and the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the letter was premature since there isn't any legislation yet. "It's a little early to have a veto threat," he said.
The existing surveillance law has been extended to Feb. 15. Bush has said he would resist extending it again.
The administration's veto threat was aimed at amendments that would bar retroactive immunity to phone companies and other telecom providers that have given the government access to e-mails and phone calls linked to people in the United States. Without the retroactive protections, the letter noted, telecom providers might be unwilling to help the government track down terror suspects in the future as they were asked to do in the days after the 2001 attacks.
About 40 civil lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies. They carry with them a threat of crippling financial penalties, which the White House says could bankrupt the companies.
After nearly two months of legislative wrangling, Reid announced that the Senate would begin voting on amendments today. Debate began Tuesday evening.