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Specter Sees Pluses in His Spying Bill

July 23, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When the White House's secret domestic surveillance program was revealed last year, Sen. Arlen Specter was one of the first to leap into action, denouncing the wiretapping as "wrong" and insisting that President Bush acted outside the law by not seeking judicial or congressional approval.

"We're not going to give him a blank check," the Republican from Pennsylvania insisted at the time.

So when Specter, well-known as a GOP maverick and administration critic, announced this month that he would offer a bill that would allow -- but not compel -- the administration to have the spying program declared retroactively legal, more than a few people focused on the dispute scratched their heads.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which had previously praised Specter for his oversight efforts, denounced the deal as a "capitulation."

"From early on, Specter was in the camp of those who challenged the president's authority to authorize the program and said the president had gone too far," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.

"But since that high point," she said, "he's gone from expressing strong belief in the separation of powers and Congress' critical role in overseeing the executive branch to a complete and utter sellout."

Specter doesn't see it that way. In an interview Friday, the chairman said he had one goal in negotiating with the White House: getting some form of judicial review for the program, which administration officials had so far bypassed.

He acknowledged that the bill he was championing would not force the president to submit the National Security Agency surveillance program to review by the FISA court, a special intelligence tribunal established by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

But, Specter said, he had gained Bush's personal promise that the president would submit it if the bill passes in its current form. "He overruled his staff" in making that commitment, said Specter, who met with Bush before announcing the deal.

Specter said he would rather have the FISA court consider NSA spying activities on a case-by-case basis, instead of having the entire surveillance program reviewed. But, in essence, Specter's position is that some judicial review is better than no judicial review.

He also argued that his bill did not represent a "blank check" for the administration's domestic spying program, as his critics claim. "It is not a blank check because it has to be filled in by the FISA court," Specter said. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 prohibits the government from conducting surveillance inside the United States without getting warrants from the special court established by the law.

But in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush authorized the NSA -- the country's top electronic spy agency -- to bypass the warrant process and intercept international telephone calls and e-mail messages by people inside the United States whom it suspected of having links to Al Qaeda.

The administration did not inform congressional intelligence committees about the program. Instead, officials provided limited briefings to a handful of leaders, including the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Several lawmakers have complained that under the 1947 National Security Act, the full committees are supposed to be kept informed of all intelligence operations.

The White House has argued that the president's powers as commander in chief during wartime gave him the authority to authorize the program, bypass the warrant process and curtail the congressional briefings.

Critics say that a decision by the FISA court validating the constitutionality of the entire spying program would effectively eliminate the warrant process and make it harder to prevent abuses in individual cases.

They also say that Specter's bill would consolidate all challenges to the program into the FISA court system, where the proceedings are secret and plaintiffs have a harder time making their case. Specter said he recognized that his proposal would not provide as much judicial oversight as either he or his critics would like.

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