World and Nation

House Democrats Steer Their Own Path on Warrantless Wiretaps

In continued defiance of the White House, House Democratic leaders are readying a proposal that would reject giving legal protection to the phone companies that helped in the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program after the Sept. 11 attacks, congressional officials said Monday.

Instead of blanket immunity, the tentative proposal would give the federal courts special authorization to hear classified evidence and decide whether the phone companies should be held liable. House Democrats have been working out the details of their proposal in the last few days, officials said, and they expect to bring it to the House floor for a vote on Thursday.

The Democrats’ proposal would fall far short of what the White House has been seeking.

President Bush has been insisting for months that Congress give retroactive immunity to the phone companies, calling it a vital matter of national security. The Senate gave him what he wanted in a vote last month that also broadened the government’s eavesdropping powers.

But House Democratic leaders have balked at the idea.

When the White House would not agree to allow more time for negotiations, House leaders last month let a temporary six-month surveillance measure expire. The White House says the Democrats’ inaction has imperiled national security. Democrats have accused Bush of fear-mongering.

The flash point in the debate has been the question of whether to protect AT&T and other major phone companies from some 40 lawsuits pending in federal courts, which charge that the companies’ participation in the eavesdropping program violated federal privacy laws and their responsibilities to their customers.

Bush says the companies acted out of patriotism in responding to what they believed was a lawful presidential order. He said that the lawsuits were being pursued by money-driven class-action lawyers and that they should not be allowed to threaten the financial solvency of the phone companies.

The Bush administration has shown no sign of backing down, with Kenneth L. Wainstein, the assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department, laying out its position most recently in an interview broadcast on Sunday on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program. Wainstein said the phone companies had “received assurances from the government, the highest levels, that this was a lawful program and that it was authorized by the president and was necessary for our national security.”

But House Democratic leaders appear ready to give the White House a fight on national security, an issue over which they once largely conceded the field to Bush.

The tentative proposal would impose tougher restrictions on NSA eavesdropping than the Senate version does by requiring court approval in advance of the agency’s wiretapping procedures, instead of approval after the fact. It would also reject retroactive immunity for the phone carriers.