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Specter Remains Doubtful of Spy Program's Legality

He says Bush was not given a 'blank check' when Congress OKd the use of force after 9/11.

January 16, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) on Sunday reiterated his reservations about President Bush's legal authority to order domestic spying, saying that Congress had not given Bush a "blank check" to order warrantless eavesdropping.

Specter also said that if planned congressional hearings determined that the president broke the law, one possible remedy could be impeachment, though he quickly added that such talk was theoretical -- and premature.

"The remedy could be a variety of things," including impeachment or criminal prosecution, "but the principal remedy ... under our society is to pay a political price," Specter told ABC's "This Week."

He said he was willing to follow the investigation as far as it needed to go, "but I don't see any talk about impeachment here."

"I don't think anybody doubts that the president is making a good-faith effort, that he sees a real problem as we all do, and he's acting in a way that he feels he must," Specter said.

"But we're not going to give him a blank check, and just because we're of the same party doesn't mean we're not going to look at this very closely."

Specter said that he believed the president had acted with the best intentions but that he did not accept Bush's argument that a congressional resolution that authorized the use of force against the nations, organizations or individuals responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also allowed him to circumvent the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

However, Specter said he was prepared to listen to the administration's case during the hearings he intended to convene next month.

"I started off by saying that he didn't have the authority under the resolution authorizing the use of force. The president has to follow the Constitution," Specter said.

"Where you have a law which is constitutional, like [the] Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, there still may be collateral different powers in the president under wartime circumstances. That's a very knotty question that I'm not prepared to answer on a Sunday sound bite....

"I'm prepared to listen, but I'm going to wear my skepticism on my sleeve," he added.

Last month, Bush acknowledged that he had authorized the National Security Agency, which conducts international electronic surveillance, to monitor communications between individuals in the United States and those abroad in suspected terrorism cases.

The foreign surveillance act outlaws such domestic wiretapping unless authorized by a surveillance court, which also has the authority to issue warrants retroactively in case of emergency.

The Bush administration has argued that the surveillance court should be bypassed because it cannot act quickly enough -- in part because of the nature of the terrorist threat and in part because of the speed of electronic communications.

Specter said he had yet to be convinced that the foreign surveillance act and the court could not handle the situation or be modified to do so by an act of Congress.

On CBS' "Face the Nation," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), another Judiciary Committee member, noted that under the law, "the attorney general can authorize a tap for 72 hours and then they must take it to the FISA court."

"We want these people wiretapped if they're connected to terror, no question," she said. "Follow the law, and the law enables this to happen."

She said it was her understanding that out of about 20,000 applications to the court, the judges had turned down fewer than a dozen.

"Therefore, there is no evidence that the FISA court can't respond," Feinstein said. "They work 24/7. There are 11 judges.... They believe they can cover this."

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