Republican Who Oversees N.S.A. Calls for Wiretap Inquiry - GOP senators add heat on spying

February 8th, 2006 11:07 am

By Eric Lichtblau / New York Times

WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 — A House Republican whose subcommittee oversees the National Security Agency broke ranks with the White House on Tuesday and called for a full Congressional inquiry into the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program.

The lawmaker, Representative Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico, chairwoman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, said in an interview that she had "serious concerns" about the surveillance program. By withholding information about its operations from many lawmakers, she said, the administration has deepened her apprehension about whom the agency is monitoring and why.

Ms. Wilson, who was a National Security Council aide in the administration of President Bush's father, is the first Republican on either the House's Intelligence Committee or the Senate's to call for a full Congressional investigation into the program, in which the N.S.A. has been eavesdropping without warrants on the international communications of people inside the United States believed to have links with terrorists.

The congresswoman's discomfort with the operation appears to reflect deepening fissures among Republicans over the program's legal basis and political liabilities. Many Republicans have strongly backed President Bush's power to use every tool at his disposal to fight terrorism, but 4 of the 10 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voiced concerns about the program at a hearing where Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales testified on Monday.

A growing number of Republicans have called in recent days for Congress to consider amending federal wiretap law to address the constitutional issues raised by the N.S.A. operation.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for one, said he considered some of the administration's legal justifications for the program "dangerous" in their implications, and he told Mr. Gonzales that he wanted to work on new legislation that would help those tracking terrorism "know what they can and can't do."

But the administration has said repeatedly since the program was disclosed in December that it considers further legislation unnecessary, believing that the president already has the legal authority to authorize the operation.

Vice President Dick Cheney reasserted that position Tuesday in an interview on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."

Members of Congress "have the right and the responsibility to suggest whatever they want to suggest" about changing wiretap law, Mr. Cheney said. But "we have all the legal authority we need" already, he said, and a public debate over changes in the law could alert Al Qaeda to tactics used by American intelligence officials.

"It's important for us, if we're going to proceed legislatively, to keep in mind there's a price to be paid for that, and it might well in fact do irreparable damage to our capacity to collect information," Mr. Cheney said.

The administration, backed by Republican leaders in both houses, has also resisted calls for inquiries by either Congress or an independent investigator.

As for the politics, some Republicans say they are concerned that prolonged public scrutiny of the surveillance program could prove a distraction in this year's midterm Congressional elections, and the administration has worked to contain any damage by aggressively defending the legality of the operation. It has also limited its Congressional briefings on the program's operational details to the so-called Gang of Eight — each party's leaders in the Senate and the House and on the two intelligence committees — and has agreed to full committee briefings only on the legal justifications for the operation, without discussing in detail how the N.S.A. conducts it.

Ms. Wilson said in the interview Tuesday that she considered the limited Congressional briefings to be "increasingly untenable" because they left most lawmakers knowing little about the program. She said the House Intelligence Committee needed to conduct a "painstaking" review, including not only classified briefings but also access to internal documents and staff interviews with N.S.A. aides and intelligence officials.

Ms. Wilson, a former Air Force officer who is the only female veteran currently in Congress, has butted up against the administration previously over controversial policy issues, including Medicare and troop strength in Iraq. She said she realized that publicizing her concerns over the surveillance program could harm her relations with the administration. "The president has his duty to do, but I have mine too, and I feel strongly about that," she said.

Asked whether the White House was concerned about support for the program among Republicans, Dana Perino, a presidential spokeswoman, said: "The terrorist surveillance program is critical to the safety and protection of all Americans, and we will continue to work with Congress. The attorney general testified at length yesterday, and he will return to Capitol Hill twice more before the week ends."

Aides to Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, who as chairman of the full House Intelligence Committee is one of the eight lawmakers briefed on the operations of the program, said he could not be reached for comment on whether he would be open to a full inquiry.

Mr. Hoekstra has been a strong defender of the program and has expressed no intention thus far to initiate a full review. In two recent letters to the Congressional Research Service, he criticized reports by the agency that raised questions about the legal foundations of the N.S.A. program and the limited briefings given to Congress. He said in one letter that it was "unwise at best and reckless at worst" for the agency to prepare a report on classified matters that it knew little about.

But two leading Democratic members of the intelligence committees, Representative Jane Harman and Senator Dianne Feinstein, both of California, wrote a letter of their own Tuesday defending the nonpartisan research service's reports on the surveillance program and other issues, saying its work had been "very helpful" in view of what they deemed the minimal information provided by the administration.

Scott Shane contributed reporting for this article.

February 8th, 2006 11:34 am

GOP senators add heat on spying

Specter urges AG to get court review

By Charlie Savage / Boston Globe

WASHINGTON -- Four Republican senators yesterday joined Democrats in challenging Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's insistence that President Bush broke no law when he authorized the military to spy on Americans' international phone calls and e-mails in a contentious daylong hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Committee chairman Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, vowed to hold further sessions in coming weeks, saying that the committee could call Gonzales back for more questioning and is seeking to hear from former attorney general John Ashcroft, who reportedly had concerns about the legality of the spying program.

Specter also pressed Gonzales to allow a special national security court to review the administration's argument that Bush's wartime powers give him the authority to spy on Americans.

''You think you're right," Specter said. ''But there are a lot of people who think you're wrong. As a matter of public confidence, why not take it to the . . . court? What do you have to lose if you're right?"

Gonzales demurred, saying only that the administration is always looking at ways it can work with the national security court to be ''more efficient and more effective in fighting the war on terror." Separately, White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday declined to respond to Specter's request during his daily press briefing.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush secretly authorized the military to wiretap Americans' international phone calls and e-mails without warrants, as are required under a 1978 law. The administration contends Bush had the authority to bypass the law under wartime powers granted by the Constitution and reinforced when Congress approved the use of force against the terrorists.

Throughout the hearing yesterday, Democrats insisted Bush had overestimated his powers, and Republicans Specter, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Sam Brownback of Kansas all questioned why Gonzales was unwilling to ask Congress to change the 1978 law to explicitly allow the spying program, thereby erasing any doubts about its legality.

Gonzales forcefully repeated the administration's defense of its wartime powers, and expressed a willingness to listen to the ideas of Congress but otherwise refused to acknowledge that any change to the 1978 law was necessary.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, responded that Gonzales was advancing a ''radical legal theory" that means ''the president's power to defend the nation is unchecked by law."

Feinstein also asked if the president had used these powers to bypass other laws.

Replied Gonzales: ''Senator, the president has not authorized any conduct, that I'm aware of, that is in contravention of law."

Several Republicans on the committee defended the Bush administration's right to order the wiretaps without seeking warrants. Republicans John Cornyn of Texas, Charles Grassley of Iowa, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Jon Kyl of Arizona, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama all argued that Bush had the flexibility to conduct the war on terror as he saw fit.

''It seems to me a little humility is called for by the members of this committee, especially before we accuse the president of committing a crime," said Kyl.

But other Republicans were more skeptical.

Specter rejected Bush's argument that Congress had effectively authorized Bush to spy on Americans without warrants when it gave him broad authority to use force against the perpetrators of the 2001 terrorist attacks. He said his fellow senators had been ''shocked" by that contention and that the administration's legal position ''just defies logic and plain English."

Graham said the administration was putting soldiers and intelligence officers at risk of prosecution by asking them to follow orders that violate the law. He said Congress would be much less willing to give presidents the authorization to use force in future crises because of the administration's expansive view of the powers the authorization conveyed.

Brownback argued that to sustain public support for what could be a decadeslong war on terrorism, the administration should work with Congress to adjust the warrant law's procedures rather than rely on the broader wartime powers as a way to ignore the law.

And DeWine told Gonzales that it would be better for the country if Bush took care of the ''legal issues" by asking Congress to amend the wiretapping law.

''Legal scholars, Mr. Attorney General, can and certainly are debating this issue," DeWine said. ''But what is not debatable is . . . the president and the American people would be stronger . . . if he did come to Congress for such specific statutory authorization."

Democrats echoed those themes, but were more harsh in their rhetoric. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's ranking Democrat, claimed to speak for ''every single member of Congress no matter what their party or their ideology" in offering a message for Gonzales to take back to Bush.

''Under our Constitution . . . we make the laws," Leahy said. ''If you believe you need new laws then come and tell us. If Congress agrees, we'll amend the law. If you do not even attempt to persuade Congress to amend the law, then you're required to follow the law as it's written. That is as true of the president as it's true of me and you and every American. That's the rule of law."

Several Democrats also pressed the attorney general about whether there was any limit to what the administration believed Bush could do under his wartime powers.

''How far will this administration go under the theory you have put forth today to ignore or circumvent laws?" asked Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois.

Each time, Gonzales refused to define the hypothetical limits of Bush's wartime powers, saying only that ''whatever the limits of the president's [wartime power] . . . it clearly includes electronic surveillance of the enemy."

The hearing went on all day, with Gonzales as the only witness. Shortly before gaveling the hearing closed around 6 p.m., Specter offered his harshest words yet about the potential illegality of the spying program, vowing that ''we're going to do a lot more" scrutinizing of it.

Committee aides said there may be as many as three more hearings, likely later in February. Possible witnesses include Gonzales again, law professors and other legal specialists, and other current and former administration officials.

Earlier in the day, Democrats also contended that both Bush and Gonzales had lied about the warrantless surveillance before the program's existence was disclosed by the New York Times late last year.

In April 2004, Bush told an audience in Buffalo that ''any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so."

Gonzales defended Bush's statement, saying the president had been speaking about a specific kind of wiretap allowed by the Patriot Act, not wiretaps in general. Democrats objected to his characterization of Bush's comments, complaining that Specter did not allow them to show a video clip of Bush's speech.

Democrats also pointed to testimony Gonzales made under oath during his January 2005 confirmation hearing. At the time, Gonzales told Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, that ''it's not the policy or the agenda of this president to authorize actions that would be in contravention of our criminal statutes."

Yesterday, Feingold confronted Gonzales over the statement, saying: ''Frankly, Mr. Attorney General, anybody that reads [your testimony] basically realizes you were misleading this committee."

But Gonzales argued that his prior testimony was truthful because, under his theory, the spying program is legal.

The Democrats' belief that Gonzales misled them a year ago prompted some senators to object when Specter announced that he would not ask the attorney general to testify under oath. The committee bickered for 10 minutes before voting 10-8, along party lines, not to place Gonzales under oath.

Specter said Gonzales had been willing to testify under oath, but that such a move was not necessary.

Informant: John Calvert


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