WASHINGTON – Republicans in Congress are trying to limit the scope of any investigation into how President Bush’s secret domestic-surveillance program has operated. Some key lawmakers are also working to legalize such spying on U.S. citizens in the future, perhaps with some judicial restrictions.
The dual-track effort is designed to protect the Bush administration from an all-out congressional inquiry into the secret program, while rejecting Bush’s argument that he already has full legal authority to order such surveillance.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a Democratic plan to conduct a broad investigation into the program. Committee chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is trying to win support for a more limited inquiry. Roberts refused to say Monday whether he had the votes to forestall the Democratic demand for an investigation. Democrats need only one Republican to side with them to order such a probe.
Under Bush’s order and without court warrants, the National Security Agency has tracked electronic communications of U.S. residents the administration says are in contact with suspected al-Qaida members abroad. The program was first disclosed by The New York Times and acknowledged by Bush in December. Critics say Bush’s action violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires warrants from a special secret court to authorize government spying inside the United States.
The partisan clash over the scope of an investigation prompted Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee last week to demand a meeting with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. He also threatened to restructure the Intelligence Committee in a way that would weaken Democrats.
Reid on Monday dismissed Frist’s call for talks.
“Let’s have the Intelligence Committee do its work,” Reid said. “I believe that we should see if Senator Roberts, who is a man of his word, is going to allow a vote on whether there should be an investigation. So when that’ s completed … I’ll be happy to consider a meeting, but until then, what’s there to meet about?”
In the Senate, a handful of Republicans has been working to give the president statutory authority to approve the NSA program. The administration argues that the president already has that power under the Constitution and a congressional resolution that gave Bush authority to use force in hunting down terrorists. Most Democrats and some Republicans reject that interpretation.
Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina met Friday to discuss DeWine’s proposal to legalize the warrantless spying while giving Congress the right regularly to review it. Graham wants a special federal court to have some authority over the program.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is proposing his own legislation that would require the foreign intelligence surveillance court to determine whether the NSA program is constitutional. Specter said Monday that only after such a determination can Congress decide whether and how to restrict the program legislatively.
Meanwhile, Specter said Monday that he wants Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify again before his committee about the legal rationale for the NSA program. Specter said he worried that Gonzales’ subsequent written responses to the committee suggested that the administration was conducting other secret programs.
“The letter that he sent to clarify his testimony raises a lot more questions,” Specter said. “There is a suggestion in his letter that there are other intelligence programs which are currently under way.”
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Jane Harman of California, said last week that Gonzales and White House counsel Harriet Miers assured her by telephone that no broader program exists. Harman’s conversation was first reported by The Washington Post on Friday.