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Consensus Grows for Curbs on Surveillance

A Senate panel goes behind closed doors to hear more about Bush's program of warrantless eavesdropping. Call for changes is bipartisan.

February 10, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for stricter regulation of President Bush's secret spying program grew Thursday, as senators briefed by administration officials about the surveillance termed the information inadequate, and called for more investigation of the eavesdropping.

The 16-member Senate Intelligence Committee met behind closed doors for three hours to hear details on the program, conducted by the National Security Agency. Bush has said the agency intercepted communications between terrorist operatives operating outside U.S. borders and people inside the country.

Critics, who include Republican and Democratic lawmakers, have contended that the president's authorization of the surveillance -- which began shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- violated federal laws that require the government to obtain special warrants for any domestic spying.

Some Republicans on Thursday joined Democrats in asking Congress to pass legislation that would establish specific judicial oversight procedures for the program.

"I believe that we can end this controversy about the constitutionality of this program very simply -- and that is to deal with it by legislation," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), a member of the intelligence and judiciary committees. "I think there is some support in Congress to do that."

Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, deputy director of national intelligence and a former National Security Agency director, conducted the briefing for senators, offering what the White House described as operational details of the spying program. They discussed it with the 20-member House Intelligence Committee in a private session Wednesday.

"We wanted to provide additional information so that members of the [committees] had a better understanding of how this program is carefully tailored and it's closely monitored," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Although committee members debated the quality of the briefings, the fact that they were held marked a key shift for the Bush administration.

Since their earliest days in office, administration officials have argued that they are legally entitled to keep private many of their discussions, including the deliberations of an energy task force run by Vice President Dick Cheney -- which the Supreme Court agreed did not have to be disclosed -- and internal debates about interrogation techniques and other tactics used in the war on terrorism.

After the spying program's existence was publicly revealed in mid-December, the White House noted that a handful of congressional leaders had been told about it. The administration resisted providing briefings to a larger number of lawmakers.

The White House changed course this week after it became clear that Republicans as well as Democrats were dissatisfied with explanations of the program and its legal basis.

"There is, I think, a growing number of members of Congress ... coming around to the principle of the late President Reagan, that it's important to 'trust, but verify,' " said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.

A lawyer familiar with Gonzales' thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said the attorney general was among administration officials arguing for the White House to provide more information to Congress.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the Intelligence Committee's chairman, said Thursday's briefing had increased support for the program among senators.

"I do think that this session has made the members certainly more knowledgeable, some more supportive of the details of the terrorist surveillance," Roberts said, adopting the White House's label for the program.

But Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said the information provided was so paltry that it might have hardened skepticism among some senators.

"Most of the questions that were asked were, in fact, not answered," he said.

Rockefeller said Hayden and Gonzales provided "nothing of substance."

He also said the Intelligence Committee would hold a vote in coming days on whether to conduct a full-scale investigation into the program.

"There's been a change, because 36 hours ago, [administration officials] weren't going to appear before us at all," Rockefeller said. "But if they came with the idea that this is going to stop an investigation on the part of the Senate Intelligence Committee, they were wrong."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the briefing lacked details necessary for members of Congress to evaluate the program's value or legality.

"There was no discussion of any operational details and in a program like this, the devil is in the details," Feinstein said. "It was an inadequate briefing and it didn't really answer many of the questions I have."

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) described Thursday's session as "a beginning, at best."

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