PAMELA HESS Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON
The House held an unusual closed-door session to talk about classified intelligence gathering in anticipation of a vote today on a warrantless eavesdropping bill. The Democratic bill would set rules for the government's surveillance of phone calls and e-mails. President Bush has vowed to veto it. The president's main objection is that the bill does not protect from lawsuits against telecommunications companies that allowed the government to eavesdrop on their customers without permission from a court after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. House Republicans succeeded Thursday in delaying the vote by one day by requesting a rare, late-night closed session of Congress to discuss the bill. It was the first secret session of the House in a quarter century. The last such session was in 1983, on U.S. support for parami l i t a r y o p e r a t i o n s i n Nicaragua. Only five closed sessions have taken place in the House since 1825. Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas said she didn't believe any minds were changed on the bill but that the session allowed views to be exchanged. "We couldn't have gone more of an extra mile to make sure we're doing the best for national s e cur i ty, " she to ld The Associated Press. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on t h e Ho u s e I n t e l l i g e n c e Committee, said in an interview that he read aloud the titles but not details of intelligence reports "that shows the nature of the global threat and how dynamic the situation is, and how fluid." Bush and congressional Republicans want the House to adopt the Senate version of the legislation, which provides a legal shield for telecom companies. About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies by people and organizations alleging the companies violated wiretapping and privacy laws. The lawsuits have been combined and are pending before a single federal judge in California. The Democrats' measure would encourage the judge to review in private the secret government documents underpinning the program to decide whether the companies acted lawfully. The administration has prevented those documents from being revealed, even to a judge, by invoking the state secrets privilege. That puts the companies in a bind because they are unable to defend themselves in suits that allege they violated wiretapping and privacy laws. The surveillance law is intended to help the government pursue suspected terrorists by making it easier to eavesdrop on foreign phone calls and e-mails that pass through the United States. A temporary law expired Feb. 16 before Congress was able to produce a replacement bill. Bush opposed an extension of the temporary law as a means to pressure Congress into accepting the Senate version of the surveillance legislation. Bush and most Capitol Hill Republicans say the lawsuits are damaging national security and unfairly punish telecommunications companies for helping the government in a time of war.