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Risks from lapsed wiretap law are disputed

House Democrats, who let the law expire Saturday, see little danger. Intelligence officials argue the ability to track potential terrorists is impaired.

President Bush, in the Oval Office last week with Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, urged the US House – in vain – to extend a warrantless wiretapping program.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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The White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill each had a hand in letting a temporary wiretapping law expire this weekend, but most of the political fallout is landing on Congress.

President Bush had pledged to veto any bill that merely extended the temporary law without resolving the matter of immunity for telecommunications firms that helped the government with its secret eavesdropping program after 9/11. A "patchwork extension" wouldn't give the security needed to protect the nation, Mr. Bush said, and he urged Republican lawmakers to vote against it.

House Democratic leaders said they would not be "jammed" by the White House into accepting the Senate version of the bill – which includes the immunity provision – and wanted more time to work out differences with the Senate.

As a result, at the stroke of midnight Saturday, the Protect America Act expired. The risk to national security is not yet clear, but the political firefights on both sides of the aisle couldn't be missed.

Bush said Thursday that failure to update the Protect America Act will "harm our ability to monitor new terrorist activities and could reopen dangerous gaps in our intelligence."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in response, dubbed such talk fear-mongering. The president has authority to continue needed eavesdropping under another law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), she said. Moreover, the authorities granted under the temporary law enacted in August will carry on for a year, she added.

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