As Congress geared up to weigh new legislation permitting the warrantless wiretaps, Cheney said it was "urgent" to renew and update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) "immediately and permanently" before a key modification from last year expires on February 1.
But the legislation could stall over objections to the White House's desire to grant US telecommunications companies which assist in the wiretaps retroactive immunity for possible rights violations.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the White House Wednesday that a short-term extension would likely be necessary first.
Cheney stressed that any update of FISA must offer the telephone and Internet carriers protection from lawsuits for alleged complicity in privacy rights violations.
"A failure to enact a permanent FISA update with liability protections would have predictable and serious consequences," Cheney said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
"Our ability to monitor Al-Qaeda terrorists will begin to degrade -- and that we simply cannot tolerate."
The 30-year-old FISA was amended by Congress last year to make clear the National Security Agency and other intelligence operations were legally empowered to tap into electronic communications when one or more of the targets is in a foreign location, without first obtaining the permission of a special FISA court.
But Congress set a February 1, 2008 expiration date on that legislation, called the Protect America Act.
The House of Representatives has passed its version of the renewal law -- without protection for telecommunications firms -- and the Senate now needs to shape its own version.
But in a letter to President George W. Bush Wednesday, Reid said "it now appears doubtful that a final bill can be negotiated and passed by both houses prior to the February 1 expiration date."
Reid urged Bush to support a one-month extension so that a full bill can be negotiated between the two houses.
Cheney pressed for a quick resolution to the issue, however.
"This new law ensured that we could quickly close the intelligence gap," he said of last year's short-term fix.
The nearing expiration date "leaves Congress only nine days in which to act to keep the intelligence gap closed."
Cheney said FISA needed a permanent update to address changes in communications technology since it was first put into law in 1978, including empowering intelligence agencies to freely monitor communications between suspects located outside the United States that are routed through infrastructure inside the country.
Human rights experts have argued that US privacy guarantees mean the intelligence agencies should seek court warrants to conduct such spying inside the country.
"Congress never intended to grant privacy rights to enemies overseas, yet because of modern technology, the law began to have that very effect," Cheney insisted.
Several telephone companies are now facing a lawsuit in California over their cooperation in secret government wiretaps.
"Those who assist the government in tracking terrorists should not be punished with lawsuits," Cheney said.
"The program has uncovered a wealth of information that has foiled attacks against the United States; information that has saved countless, innocent lives."
Copyright © AFP 2008