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FISA or bust: What's Bush's real angle

In his latest press conference, the president again warns Congress any delay increases the U.S. vulnerability to terror strikes. But the subtext makes you wonder what's really on the agenda.

Hardly a week goes by without President Bush urging Congress to pass a law to facilitate domestic federal eavesdropping on suspected terrorists' phone calls and e-mails.

The House and Senate versions of the surveillance bill--called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act--need to be reconciled. But politics is in the air (I know, you're shocked, shocked.)

The controversy centers on whether to extend legal immunity to telecommunications firms that carried out Uncle Sam's bidding and wiretapped U.S. phone and computer lines without first getting court permission. The Senate says yes, while the House says no.

George Bush White House

In his stump appearances (as well as during his Thursday press conference), the president argues that the old FISA law is out of date and fails to allow government security arms to quickly track foreign terrorists on foreign soil "quickly and effectively."

As such, he contends the nation is in danger from terror attacks now that the temporary surveillance law has expired. If you didn't catch the president's morning press conference, here's a link to the text play-by-play.

Here are the relevant excerpts:

"The law expired; the threat to America has not expired. Congress understood last year that FISA did not give our intelligence professionals the tools they needed to keep us safe. The Senate understands that the FISA--old FISA didn't give us the tools needed to protect America. The bipartisan bill it passed provides those tools our intelligence professionals need. Yet the House's failure to pass this law raises the risk of reopening a gap in our intelligence gathering, and that is dangerous."

Asked later if Americans are essentially being told that when it comes to their privacy, the answer was "to suck it up," Bush responded:

"I wouldn't put it that way, if I were you, in public. Well, you've been long been long enough to--anyway, yes, I-- look, there's--people who analyze the program fully understand that America's civil liberties are well protected. There is a constant check to make sure that our civil liberties of our citizens aren't--you know, are treated with respect. And that's what I want, and that's what most--all Americans want..."

"I guess you could be relaxed about all this if you didn't think there was a true threat to the country. I know there's a threat to the country. And the American people expect our Congress to give the professionals the tools they need to listen to foreigners who may be calling into the United States with information that could cause us great harm."

The president didn't bother getting into the nitty-gritty. I can understand that. FISA created a secret court, which since 1978 has been able to grant wiretapping orders upon request. What's more, during emergencies, FISA--the "old FISA, I should add--lets the attorney general to conduct wiretaps without court approval.

Bush made it seem that FISA requests routinely get held up by recalcitrant, fuddy-duddy judges. But if the Justice Department fails to get its way, it can always appeal to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. (They needed to go that far just once in the history of the law.) Bottom line: The Feds nearly always get what they want. So why is Bush making a big megilla out of this? Hmm, rumor has it there's a big election in the offing.