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Veto threatened on surveillance bill

President Bush seeks to protect telecom firms that cooperated with U.S. spying.

WASHINGTON - President Bush threatened yesterday to veto planned legislation to update a terrorist-surveillance law, assailing Democratic plans to deny protection from lawsuits for telecommunications providers that let the government spy on U.S. residents after the Sept. 11 attacks without court clearance.

The threat came in a 12-page letter to Senate leaders from Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell. It was issued as lawmakers prepared to vote on legislation that would update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"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," they wrote.

The letter was sent to Senate leaders and the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary and intelligence committees.

"It's a little early to have a veto threat," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said, noting that no legislation had yet been finalized. He said the Senate would begin voting on amendments today. Debate began yesterday evening.

The current surveillance law expires Feb. 15. Bush has said he would resist another temporary extension.

Bush's veto threat is aimed at amendments that would deny retroactive legal immunity to telecom providers that gave the government access to e-mails and phone calls involving U.S. residents after the 2001 attacks without a special court's approval.

Without retroactive protection, the letter said, telecom providers might be unwilling to help the government locate terror suspects in the future.

"Private citizens who respond in good faith to a request for assistance by public officials should not be held liable for their actions," Mukasey and McConnell wrote.

A bill already approved by the Senate intelligence committee "is not perfect," Mukasey and McConnell wrote. But since it provides the legal shields, they said, the administration will support it if the amendments are dropped.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies. The suits could result in huge financial penalties that the White House says could bankrupt the companies.

The 1978 law requires the government to get approval from a secret court when it seeks to electronically eavesdrop on suspects within the United States. It does not apply to wiretaps on people outside the country.

Over the years, however, foreign communications have relied on U.S.-based technology, raising the question of whether the government needs court approval to listen in on those conversations. The bill being debated seeks to resolve this issue.